TOGETHERNESS – The Team Work of Good Ensemble

roof pattern-1Ensemble means TOGETHER, as in a unified or coordinated whole.  We hear the word pertaining to clothing, as in a coordinated outfit that works together in terms of color and pattern, etc.  In music, it can refer in the specific sense to a group that performs together, i.e., a vocal ensemble, wind or string ensemble.  In the more subjective sense, “ensemble” is the quality of togetherness, relating to the coordination of various elements of performance (outlined below), seemingly minute factors that can make the choir sound either neat, polished and professional, or sloppy, careless and amateurish.

What may be surprising is just how little it takes to upgrade or degrade a performance just by focusing on, or neglecting, one or more of those elements.

As you might guess, good ensemble demands, first and foremost, two important skills:  watching and listening – the discipline to watch the conductor, and the discipline to listen, to tune in, to your neighbors and yourself.  Together they comprise an acute awareness that must be maintained at all times when we are performing, even in rehearsal.  Most of us don’t have these skills naturally – they must be developed with practice, and if we make a point of thinking of them whenever we sing in a group, they’ll develop all the more quickly for us.

Don’t be the weak link!  Remember that all the things we think about in good ensemble can end up being for naught unless everyone is concentrating on them.  All it takes to destroy good ensemble is one singer out of sync with the group.  And once you have tuned in to the ensemble, never let your concentration flag even for a second, for that is where most mistakes happen.

Here then are some of the basic components of good ensemble, many of which we will explore in more depth in upcoming blog posts.  Although they should be addressed at each rehearsal, be careful not to let them become tedious.  Devise a short but purposeful warm-up regimen that includes exercises conducive to these elements – and especially to the overall skill of “tuning in.”

Singing “in tune” is of course crucial to good ensemble, and potentially problematic since some of us have a better natural sense of pitch than others.  But for nearly all of us, it’s a skill that can be learned and honed with a little practice and concentration.  And in order to “tune up,” we each must “tune in.”  Practicing intervals, both individually and as a group, can help us develop this skill.

Unification and refinement of vowels is an important but usually neglected part of achieving good ensemble.  Here are some things for every choral ensemble, and its conductor, to think about.

Avoid “spreading” the vowels – that wide, horizontal mouth shape that most of us just naturally do.  Besides sounding outlandish and uncultured, spreading our vowels has the effect of damping the resonance in our sound, making it weaker, less vibrant, less warm, and more strained.  Not mention, it often adversely affects pitch.

Try this exercise:  Have your mouth closed in a fully relaxed, neutral position (“lips together, teeth apart”).  Gently hold your two index fingers pointing up, at each corner of the mouth (but not touching the face).  Practice singing or speaking (in varying order) the 5 vowel sounds:
Ah (as in father)
E (as in take)
Ee (as in free)
Oh (as in go)
Oo (as in true)
Do this without letting the mouth exceed the width between your two index fingers, and without tension anywhere.  Impose this width limitation in all of your singing and your sound will improve noticeably!

Modify vowels in the higher range – Don’t let anyone tell you you must approach vowels literally in your high range.  For example, it is no use trying to sing a pure AH up there.

  1. Remember these two important rules about high notes:
    It’s especially important not to spread – think tall and narrow in your mouth shape (but without forcing); and
  2. Whatever the “true” vowel is (even if it’s E or EE), think of injecting it with a little UH (as in love).  While you may think it feels weird, have complete faith that it won’t sound weird to the listener.

Agree on dealing with diphthongs – On sustained notes, diphthongs (where necessary) should normally come at the very end.  Until that time, the first vowel sound should be pure and constant.

Where diphthongs are unnecessary:
Learn pure (non-diphthong) vowels – For example, a simple E (as in take) should be pronounced not with two vowels EH and EE, but as a single constant E (think of that stereotypical Canadian “E?” sound).   These pure vowels are especially essential in languages French, Italian and Spanish (among others), but they are called for in any language.

Correct faulty vowels – For example, many of us naturally pronounce AH too widely (spread).  It should be narrower and with a tiny bit more AW in it.  Another common issue is learning to sing a pure OOH.  The correct mouth shape for OOH takes more muscular effort than most other vowels – a pointed, forward pucker of the lips is needed here.  And finally again, get rid of unnecessary diphthongs.

Uniform arrival and departure – Getting on and off of consonants together is key to good ensemble.  

Anticipatory consonants – Consonants must not happen on the beat.  If they do, every entrance will be late.  Make a point of putting the vowel right on the beat, and the consonant will find its proper place before. 

Bring out consonants! – A common shortcoming of even highly accomplished vocal singing is unclear diction.  Think of overdoing those consonants, of propelling them forward, and it will probably be just enough for the audience to understand you.  There’s also the added benefit of an energized breath, and vowels will be more vibrant.

Everyone must execute a crescendo or diminuendo, or any other change in volume, at the same rate.  When the group can feel the expressive purpose and power of a dynamic together, the effect is all the more compelling to the listener.

Everyone singing the same line must begin and cut off at the same time.  Rhythms must be felt and executed in perfect unison.  For rehearsing complex rhythms, try subdividing everything in the smallest note unit of that passage.

Everyone must observe and execute these things in the same way at the same time.

This is one of the real tests of good ensemble, especially given the tendency to assume that singing in unison is easy.  It is easy to sing in unison, but not so easy to make it sound good!  Here’s where all the units of ensemble must be perfectly aligned and coordinated.

There is the sense of ensemble that only comes from conductor and each singer feeling the music in complete sympathy.  To some degree this is indefinable – it just happens.  But it can only happen with everyone’s total concentration on tuning in, both by listening to one another and by watching the conductor.
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