Lately during Warm Up time I’ve been doing just a bit of actual warming up of the voices, but much more work on warming up the chorus’ ears.
Really not fair though that this exercise is easier with a men’s chorus, or in an SATB choir where the two bottom voices are men’s.
What I’m talking about is the intensity with which you can hear the overtones, or harmonics when men are singing the root of a chord.
Thinking vertically, as well as melodically and paying attention to overtones can produce truly magical results in every group. The work – hearing the harmonics/overtones may take just a bit longer in women only groups.
In my men’s chorus I ask the Basses to sing the root of the chord, and to keep nourishing and sustaining it (staggering the breathing) so that chorus members can practise hearing the overtones in the sound. The overtone that can be heard most easily is the octave above the note that the basses are singing – so when at least a few of the Leads can hear it I ask them to just place that octave right into the Basses’ sound. They don’t need to ‘lead’ when all they’re doing is amplifying something that the Basses are already creating.
Once that octave is clean and balanced, I ask the Baritones and Tenors to listen for the 5th of the chord that will be sounding because of what both the Basses and Leads are singing. It may be easier for the Baritones to hear the 5th overtone an octave higher than they’ll be singing it. I find that that harmonic tends to pop out more.
When the Baritones place that 5th, they know that it’s correct when the combination of what the three parts are doing creates an empty, open, hollow sound. At this point it actually starts to feel pretty good, physically, as if suddenly you’re in a very clean, clear place.
After enjoying this clarity for a while I ask the Tenors to start listening for their 3rd in the overtones that are being created. If the three lower parts can keep that open hollow sound steady, the 3rd will just pop out, and needs to be sung only very delicately for the chord to fuse together and become a mystical place where you’ll all just want to keep hanging out!
For SATB choirs, I’d have the Basses sing the root, the Tenors the octave, the Altos the 5th and the Sopranos the 3rd (though they’ll have to rethink their starring role for the purposes of this exercise) Even if the sopranos take the high octave, the Tenors the 5th and the Altos the 3rd, the sopranos will still have an opportunity to practise humility as they fit into the Basses’ sound.
I know this seems like it would be one long continuous sound, but I find that groups need to rest for a few seconds between the sections of this exercise. If people aren’t accustomed to listening for overtones it can be mentally very tiring. Their brains need a short break both to rest, and to absorb what they’re learning about the sound and physical sensations.
When I do this kind of work at the beginning of a rehearsal I find that people’s ears work better for the rest of the evening.
And for a Director, better tuning really is the Holy Grail that drives us on.