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.
Tom Gentry showed this one to my Men’s Barbershop Chorus after their competition last month.
Fortunately for my Women’s chorus, we were able to work on it for almost a month before our competition, and it made a significant difference to our synchronization and to our score!
Here’s how it’s done.
“On the stick” directing – one sound at a time – every singable sound in the phrase.
For example, the first phrase of the ballad ‘The Masquerade is Over’ is “My blue horizon is turning gray”
The sounds, in order, and slow motion on the Director’s cue would be:
Mm – ah – ee – blll – oo – ho – eu – rrr – ah – ee – zzz – uh – nnn – ih – zzz – teu – rrr – nnn – ih – ngggg – greh – ee (If you want to get really picky, there’s a slight ‘ih’ at the end of the word gray)
Now there’s no way to process all of this up to speed – but once my chorus started becoming aware of all the sounds, and drilling this exercise, they were able to speed it up a little.
But more importantly, when I needed more detailed treatment of a word later on in the song, they all now understood exactly how much refinement I was asking for.
I’m sure that some of you are thinking that your chorus would never want to make distinctions that fine.
Certainly that would have been the case with my choruses a few years ago. Here are the steps we took to get to the place where my women’s chorus finds this sort of thing fun.
1. The primary target vowels – ee, ah, oo (We worked on matching ‘ee’ for a whole year!)
2. Vowels that people think of as target vowels, which are actually diphthongs – oh (oh/oo), ay (eh/ee),
3. Short vowel target vowels – ih, eh, a, uh
4. Tons of other pure vowels – as are found in words like: first, book, good, law, the…
5. Diphthong resolutions – long target vowels, then fast resolution vowels
And at this point, they were ready to hear about, and drill the singable consonants – and all the singable sounds. We’d been asked for years by coaches and judges for more singable consonants – but we weren’t quite sure how to get everyone’s ideas about them aligned.
However, this exercise made it all easy to understand, and easy to drill.
So thank you again Tom Gentry!!
Once a chorus is finally getting the hang of 100% note accuracy, clean vowels, good vocal placement, chord balancing, great blend, every singer agreeing on the emotion from phrase to phrase, what’s next? (Yes – I know – all of the above are lifelong pursuits, but here’s the next ball to trying juggling with all the rest)
Singable consonants – the ‘Ls’, ‘Ms’, ‘Ns’, ‘Vs’ and the ‘NGs’. The most basic trick here when the singable consonant is on the end of a word is not to finish off with a kicky little neutral vowel. ‘Home – uh’.
What we’re going for here is a diction presentation that sounds similar to the way we speak. If we modify our singing diction too much it’ll be a distraction for the audience, and get between them and what the composer was trying to express.
Most of the time, we don’t sing right through these consonants for fear of interrupting the legato line created by singing vowel to vowel to vowel. However, singing through these sounds can actually enhance both the legato line and the interpretation.
The difficulty is in getting everyone to agree on exactly the same length of time and intensity on each L or N or M. In this agreement lies the artistry.
My groups have now become good at singing on the target vowels, but consonants have taken a back seat. So I’ve only just begun to work on them – mostly in the warm up – singing words like ‘Romance’ over and over (with eyes closed) to try to get the right amount of M and N. (Which in this case really helps with the word painting.) However, I haven’t yet been able to guide them with a technique that will be reliable from word to word without having to spend a great deal of time on each one.
I did a workshop yesterday for about 50 church organist/choir directors and when one of the participants asked me if I had a Magic Trick for singable consonants, I had to say that I’m muddling along with most other directors on this one.
So – dear reader – if you happen to have a great technical trick for this that would help us all, please just click on ‘leave a comment’ below, and I’d love to hear about it!