Category Archives: Rehearsal Technique

TEMPO DRAGGING? DON’T RESORT TO SPEEDING!

English road into fog

Speeding into a fog.

The Cop-Out.  It’s one of the easy solutions to a dragging, sluggish tempo.  Move it along! Problem solved.

Or is it just a cop-out?  And doesn’t the easy solution merely create another problem?  What if the composer calls for a slower tempo?  “Speed kills” as the saying goes, and it’s true in music too — Nothing can kill the desired effect of a slow, deliberate tempo like the addiction to speed.  The composer likely had a good reason to specify this tempo – and it’s important to try and respect the composer’s intent.

And even when there is no specified tempo, if we always resort to this easy “move it along” solution, pretty soon all of our repertoire will begin to sound the same, no matter what the mood of the music should be.

Avoiding the Need for Speed.  Often as not, this compulsion to speed up is pushed on the conductor by singers who, feeling burdened by a slow tempo, believe that to “move it along” will make things more comfortable.  As a singer, I have been guilty of this myself.  As a composer and a singer, I will say that it’s better to respect the specified tempo and take one or two extra breaths, than to try and do the phrase in one breath by speeding up.  Respect the effect!  It’s far more important than being able to brag that you did it in one breath.  This principal holds in both choral and solo singing.

flowing river-1

A leisurely flow.

It’s Psychological.  But much of the time, the problem is really in our minds anyway.  It’s the product of a faulty or neglectful attitude toward the music.  The most reasonable and best artistic solution is to detract our attention from the unease of a “dragging” tempo by reducing the drag in our attitude, and concentrating our efforts on musicality.

Musical Energy.  This means feeling that constant sense of energy – to shape the line, to let it flow and stretch, like a lovely winding road stretching and curving through the countryside.  Give the line you sing – even through the rests – a continual feeling of forward travel.  Many other metaphorical images might apply here – a flowing stream, ocean waves, the blowing breeze, drifting clouds, even pulling taffy.

The main goal here is to avoid the feeling of stagnation, and find the climactic points of emphasis and aim for those destinations, to discover in each phrase the constantly renewing cycle of tension and release that is the essence of music, and of life.  It’s a sure bet that if you are thinking like this when you sing in a slow tempo, you won’t be thinking of the drag.  And more importantly, the audience won’t perceive the drag.

Moving the Breath.  Proper and continuous breath energy, emanating from the pelvic region through the contraction of muscles just above the waistline, is necessary to achieve this continual melodic flow.  Remember, this energy must never feel locked or stationary.  Never allow yourself to go into “cruise control.”

Crescendo, Diminuendo, Accelerando, Ritardando.  When we are shaping the phrase with this sort of energy of motion, we might feel that these dynamic and tempo changes are at work, and to a very subtle extent, they are.  But it would be painstaking and not a little tedious to try and plan out every small nuance of volume and speed in every phrase.  It’s much simpler to think of those “destination” points, those tension climax and release spots in the phrase.

Words Speak Louder.  Here’s where the text provide the answer.  We ask which words in the phrase are most important, which are of secondary importance, and so on down the line.  Find these words and use them as the points of climax in the phrase.

Expression.  Get in touch with the mood of the piece you are singing, and more specifically, the immediate melodic line.  Turn your energy to really expressing that mood or emotion.

Slow Down and Save the Music.  Whenever you find yourself thinking about how draggy the tempo is, re-focus your mind on making music.  And don’t cop out with speed!  The aesthetic police might pull you over.    Join Email List

THE BREAK-DOWN ON LEARNING MUSIC: BREAK IT DOWN

Close-up photo - string tremulosMusic consists of various elements – rhythm, pitches, dynamics, changing tempo, text – any one of which can prove tricky, challenging or downright daunting.  And once you’re combining two or more challenging elements, the challenge seems to increase exponentially.

One of the most common errors we make in learning our new music, particularly singers learning vocal music with text, is the all-too-often vain attempt to grasp all these elements at once.

Learn It Right the First Time!  For most of us at least, this all-at-once approach is bound to divide our concentration in this highly crucial first exposure to the music, and we end up learning something the wrong way.  Remember:  once something is learned incorrectly, it is much harder to unlearn the mistake than to learn the thing right in the first place!

Start With the Most Challenging Element.  Maybe there are tricky rhythms. Learn just the rhythms completely and thoroughly without the pitches or text, and in a slow, steady manageable tempo to begin with.

Subdivide.  For intricate rhythmic passages, find the smallest note duration value and sub-divide the entire passage into this value.  If, for example, it’s the 16th note, sub-divide all the rhythmic values into a continual 16th-note pulse, and practice the rhythm under the feeling of this pulse.

Tempo, Tempo.  Once you’ve learned the rhythms, this is a great time to start practicing in the indicated tempo of the piece, especially if such tempo is fast enough to present a challenge.  No matter what tempo you are practicing in, slow, fast or in between, make sure it is a steady tempo, true to the context of the rhythm.  A rhythm out of tempo is never really correct.

Here’s the Pitch.  Now go to the next most challenging thing – most likely, it’s the pitches.  Learn these at first without the rhythms.  Master those tricky intervals perfectly before combining them with any other element.

There are a variety of approaches for getting a handle on difficult intervals:

Wide Leaps – Try shifting the second pitch down or up an octave so that, for example, a 7th or 9th becomes a 2nd, or a 6th becomes a 3rd, etc.  Learn it this easy way before re-introducing the original octave context.

TritoneTritone (Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th) – try inserting one or more helper tones in between to make this devilish interval easier to grasp.  I like to think of this interval in one of two ways:  1) as two consecutive minor thirds; or 2) as three consecutive whole steps).

Trust Your Eyes.  For less difficult intervals, let the visual movement of the printed notes on the staff be your guide – that’s what they’re there for!  If you allow yourself to go by these movements from space to line, space to space, etc. you probably can’t go far wrong.  But make sure it’s right!  Use a keyboard to play the pitches, and listen to the correct pitches and intervals three or four times before singing the pitches.  Listen, then sing.  Make sure to learn them correctly the first time.

hayom-t-2-1Know Whereof You Speak.  Things get all the more tricky with a foreign language text.  We in VocalEssence have just finished our 2014 run of holiday concerts, where fully half the program was Scandinavian music in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish.  For most of us, these languages were entirely unfamiliar, and it was especially necessary to learn the language text on its own before applying it to music.

Learn the text as a separate element first.  Get the diction down.  (Speaking the text aloud is very important because it ensures that you will train the muscles needed to pronounce it.  Mental knowledge is only half the story when it comes to pronouncing tricky words.  Once you’ve achieved perfect working pronunciation, practice the text in rhythm, without pitches.

Put It Together and What Have You Got?  Finally, add those pitches to the rhythms.  And once you’ve practiced this once or twice, begin paying attention to dynamics, phrasing and articulations.  If possible, begin incorporating these as soon as you have combined pitch with rhythm, so that they are hard-wired into your performance.

Breaking down the elements of new music in this way, whether individually or as a group, will not only ensure accuracy to what’s written, it will save a lot of rehearsal time in the long run.  It will also promote a sense of security – and more freedom for creative musicality – in performance.  Join Email List

EXERCISING THE EAR – and the MUSICIAN

Ear training-1Ensemble singing is about listening as much as singing. The rule of thumb is: If you can’t hear the other singers, you’re singing to loud. But what this really means is that even as you’re singing (loudly or softly), you must be acutely tuned in to what’s going on around you. Once you have attained the habit of tuning in, it becomes easier to correct mistakes almost before they happen, to avoid the misplaced consonant, the false entrance or the faulty pitch.

We have entered into the realm of musicianship – always essential, but never more so than in ensemble singing.

INTERVALS are the space difference in pitch between two notes. Practice playing, singing and recognizing intervals both alone and in a group.  It’s essential to know the names of the intervals as well as how to hear/sing them. This connection is basic to the fundamental skill of reading music.

Multi-Pronged Approach – Learn and practice each interval in different ways. Listen to and sing each one:

  1. As an ascending  line;
  2. As a descending  line;
  3. In its vertical  (chord or harmonic) form.  The ability to recognize each interval by hearing it both as melodic line and as a harmony is a useful and important skill. This third method can be practiced on your own at the keyboard if you know how to play each interval. But it is also an excellent group exercise to have one section sing a pitch while another section sings another pitch higher or lower at a given interval.
  4. Built on different notes of the scale – for example, try to hear a perfect 5th not just on E to A, but on C to F, F to B-flat, etc.  It’s good to be able to hear the interval in different various keys.

Purpose:  To build a fundamental skill in sight-singing.

Some intervals are easier than others. The trickiest one for nearly everyone is the tritone, which may be thought of in three different ways:

a.  As an augmented 4th (think of stretching a perfect 4th by adding a semitone);
b.  As a diminished 5th (think of shrinking a perfect 5th by subtracting a semitone);
c.  As 2 notes with three consecutive whole steps between them.

Tritone

Tritone – Melodic to Harmonic

HARMONIC SHIFT EXERCISES – The group interval exercise mentioned above is one of many harmonic group singing exercises. Others should involve full harmonic chords of 3 or more parts. The leader chooses a chord (one note for each part), and has the group hold the chord. From here, all sorts of exercises can happen.

For example:

– Practice shifting the entire chord up or down by semi-tones, whole tones, other intervals.
– Change from major to minor, minor to diminished, major to augmented.
– Begin in unison/octaves, then split to a semi-tone dissonance. Move to whole tone dissonance. Evolve into 3- or 4-part dissonant chords.

Purpose: To build confidence in singing harmony; to develop a sense of tonal awareness, of skill in hearing and singing subtle harmonies and dissonances; to foster an appreciation for harmonic colors; in general, to encourage and build a sense of ensemble.

As the skill level advances, progress from standard major and minor chords to more complex chords such as:

Seventh chord built on MAJOR triad –
Minor seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a minor third above.
Major seventh – from the fifth of the chord, add another tone a major third above.

Seventh chord built on a MINOR triad –
Same as above, but the sound will be quite different!

Augmented chord – start with a major triad and raise the 5th by a semitone. The augmented chord is really two stacked major 3rds.

Diminished seventh chord
Fully diminished – three consecutive minor thirds stacked vertically
Half-diminished – two consecutive minor thirds topped with a major third, stacked vertically

Ninth, eleventh, thirteenth chords in similar variation.

DYNAMICS

Believe it or not, dynamics (loud, soft, etc.) are not easy for most ensembles to achieve effectively.  For one thing, there’s the phenomenon of thinking you’re doing too much when in fact it’s not nearly enough to “read” from the listener’s perspective. Another common (and seemingly universal) syndrome among singers is the subconscious associations of louder = faster, and softer = slower.

Gradual changes in volume are more challenging than one might think to execute in an even and consistent way. Too often we peak too early or die down prematurely. And vocally, it is a challenge to pull these off with consistent support in order not to produce strident tone in crescendo (growing louder), or lose energy and vitality of tone on diminuendo (growing softer).

Crescendo – practice at varying rates and durations.

Diminuendo– practice at varying rates and durations.

Combined cresc/dim – The most common challenge here is to avoid fading too fast in the second half.

Instant or sudden changes in volume approach the realm of accent, but without the full force of an accent. They vary in degree of either the loud or the soft. In a printed score or part they are often accompanied by the word subito (sudden). Practice overdoing these – you just might discover you’re not really overdoing it, and you might not be doing enough!

Forte-piano (fp) is perhaps the most common subito change. Listen to many Mozart’s works and you’ll likely encounter this one.

Sforzando (sfz) is similar to the the forte-piano, but is rather like an accent.

Swell (<>) done with varying degrees of speed.  Try it fast, and study how this is different from an accent or forte-piano (answer: it is smoother).

Forte-piano followed by a crescendo, as well as other combinations.       Join Email List

 

EXERCISING THE VOICE – Key Drills for Better Singing

pitch pipe close-upEffective choral singing requires certain skills, both for the voice and for the ear.  Taking 10 minutes each day to do them can develop these skills faster than we might imagine.  And we owe nothing less to our fellow singers, or our audience!

In this post, we’ll explore some voice-building warm-up exercises, which are designed to help us produce the biggest, warmest, most tension-free sound for the least amount of effort and wear on the voice.  They function both as warm-up and as training for vocal development.

General Guidelines – When practicing alone, use any melodic pattern that’s comfortable in the voice, being sure to cover your range as thoroughly as possible, without ever straining.

If you’re leading the group in these drills, choose melodic patterns that accommodate everyone’s range needs – take the sopranos and tenors as high, and the basses and altos as low as necessary for a proper and thorough warm-up.

In either situation, be careful to produce every sound in a free and well-supported way, with support coming from just above the pelvic region – this allows for freedom from tension everywhere above.

Consistent discipline  over the long haul is the only way to break the old bad habits and develop the new good ones.

You’ve Got to Break a Few – For warm-up purposes, it’s wise to go a step or two higher and lower than you’ll need to sing in performance, or just to stretch your voice.  At these extremes of your range, you might crack.  It’s okay!  A cracked or broken tone, freely and properly produced, is vastly preferable to a “clean” tone achieved by false manipulation or force.  But don’t beat a dead horse – if something doesn’t work, leave it and try again later, or try a different approach.

HUMMING – How to:  Lips together, teeth apart, with the lower jaw hanging loosely down from loose lips.  Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  Helps us to feel where proper resonance happens.  Don’t force the tone anywhere – let the sound find where it wants to go; it will seem to buzz across the face and into the front “brain”; if done properly as explained above, it also sets up and demonstrates the loosely gathered, narrowed mouth shape we want for all our vowels (see below).

HUMMING INTO VOWELS – The next step in our humming approach is to transfer our head resonance into open vowel sounds:  MMMeee, MMMaaaayyy, MMMaaahhh, MMMohhh, MMMooohhh, again with the 5 vowels in any order you choose.  Practice this also with N and NG initial consonants.  (See VOWEL EXERCISES below.)

Got a Cold?  The open vowels you arrive at from out of the hum should be produced with the feeling of having a stuffed nose.  As you make each vowel, imagine you have a “code id-da-doze” (where those M, N and NG consonants are impossible!), while still allowing the resonance just where you felt it with the humming.  You can test whether this is working properly – As you make the tone, use your fingers to stop and unstop the nose.  If your tone doesn’t change, you’re probably doing it right.  These open vowel tones are approaching the kind of warm, resonant tones that are the ideal of proper vocal production.  Just remember to keep a narrow mouth and good support from below!

LONG HISS – How to:  Take a full inward breath, and emit a long, gentle and steady  unvoiced “sss” sound, supported with steady breath energy from the pelvic region.  As usual, keep your tongue, lips, jaw, etc. as loose and free as possible.  See how long you can sustain it without a breath.  With practice, you’ll increase this duration.  Purpose:  Breath control and capacity.  Makes us aware of the need for steady metering of breath energy, to produce well supported sound without tension.

LIP TRILL – Very challenging, but extremely valuable:  Don’t be frustrated if you can’t do this one right away – but do take the time to master it!

How to:  For this one, don’t think of humming, but rather of producing the tone strictly through the mouth.  As you make the pitched sound through loosely closed lips, you allow  the lips to “flap” loosely without any contortion, tightening or other manipulation.  It’s about letting the lips do what they will do, propelled entirely and solely by breath support from below.
Purpose:  Warm-up; vocal development.  This exercise teaches three important concepts:  1) Loose lips, tongue and jaw; 2) proper connection with breath flow; 3) the general principal of singing – letting.  Failure in any one of these three ideas will mean failure of the exercise.  Good!  Once you master it, you’ll have gained a lot.  If you feel tired in your abdominal region and not anywhere above, you’re doing it right!  Practice this one over the long haul.

VOWEL EXERCISES – Keep the vowels from spreading.  In the humming exercise (see above), we begin to have an idea of the properly relaxed but narrow mouth shape necessary for all of our vowels.   Another method for achieving this is to gently place the back of the fingers on either side of the mouth, and gently urge the hands inward towards each other. Don’t push so far as to produce a “fish mouth,” but just enough to narrow the mouth.  Now, as you maintain this shape, sing your vowels.
How to:  Pick a pitch in the middle of your range, and sing “ee eh aah oh ooh,” or the reverse, or use any order you wish.  Keeping the same width for all vowels, practice producing each contrasting vowel sound.   You’re reshaping your lips and tongue only as much as you need (especially on “oh” and “ooh”) to produce a pure vowel.  Also practice other “in between” vowels, such as umlauts and short vowels, in this same way.  Again, try and maintain as consistent and tension-free a mouth shape as possible across these various vowels.

Remember – By properly supporting the breath from below, you’re better able to let go of everything above.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – Part II: THE BASIC ELEMENTS

POSTUREi-love-to-sing

Standing Tall. The singer might imagine being suspended from the top of the head by a string, maintaining a feeling of tallness so that it’s almost as if the feet are just barely touching the floor.  Feet are about shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other.  One knee should remain unlocked (for one thing, to avoid the risk of fainting).  Wth arms loosely hanging at the sides, rotate the shoulders forward, then up, then straight back, and finally straight down to a resting state.  This final position will render the chest in a relaxed state of height.  This should be the default singing posture, and is especially important to maintain on exhalation or phonation.

BREATH SUPPORT

Inhalation is received not in the chest, but in the area just above the pelvis and all around the back just above the buttocks.  Think of an inner tube which inflates with inhalation.  Ideally after weeks, months and years of practice, such an inhalation will seem to inflate the lowest part of the rib cage and the area below it, and during exhalation/phonation, this inflation will be at least partially maintained.

Exhalation/Phonation – The Tube of Toothpaste.  Here’s a mental image often proffered by voice teachers, and one I have found invaluable:  When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the middle, the middle section deflates, much the way the chest will deflate if we try to expel the breath from our chest or upper abdomen – this is not conducive to good singing technique!

On the other hand, if you squeeze the tube from the very bottom, the entire portion above this inflates and maintains inflation.  Think of expelling your breath during singing in this same way:  All of the outgoing breath energy should originate from your pelvis, with a constant sense of sure and steady motion.  (Singing is always about motion, never about locking anything).  I especially find it helpful as I produce sound to think of this contracting motion from each side (above each hip) rather than from the center front or center back.

Freedom from Tension.  When you support your breath in the way I’ve described here, it will be easier to think of everything from above the pelvis to the top of the head to be as loose and tension-free as it can possibly be and still function as it needs to.  This includes all the muscles of the chest, shoulders, neck, throat, tongue, face and head!

The tongue and the lower jaw are two especially common sources of undue tension for singers.  Remember that the tongue musculature extends all the way back into the throat.  Think of muscular freedom all the way back, letting the tongue lie flat in the mouth, with the tip resting against the back of the lower front teeth.

As for the lower jaw, it should be loose and capable of mobility at all times when singing.  You can test this periodically.  Try gently moving the jaw inward or sideways while phonating.  If it moves freely and easily during phonation, it is tension-free, ideally with proper breath support allowing for this freedom everywhere.  But this will take some consistent practice and patience – keep at it!

With a little practice in mental pictorialization, you’ll soon be able to sense that freedom of tension as you allow the sound to resonate in its own way through your upper body.

RESONANCE AND ROUNDNESS – ACHIEVING THE BALANCE

Resonance alone, without roundness, will result in a nasal sounding tone – all in all, not the most damaging kind of singing, but not a pleasant sound either.  Conversely, roundness alone without resonance will be apt to sound woolly, swallowed, muffled and rather lifeless.  When we achieve just the right balance between the two, the resulting synergy can be spine-tingling for the listener.

Resonance of Tone – Resonance is what gives our singing tone its carrying power.  Any great opera or classical singer must be able to carry their sound, acoustically and unmiked, over a full orchestra, to be audible throughout the theater or auditorium.

If we imagine singing tone as a knife blade, we may think of two components of tone: resonance and roundness.  Roundness is analogous to the size of the blade, and resonance to its edge.  Resonance is the sharp “cutting edge” of the sound, the element that allows the voice to cut through an orchestra, for example, and soar over it to the ears of the audience.

Think of singing as speaking.  The consonants especially should be delivered from the forward part of your mouth, from the lips, the front teeth and the tip of the tongue.  This is a prerequisite to resonance.  Another is freedom from tension in the muscles, bones and sinews of the skull, neck and upper body.  Tension inhibits resonance, which must emanate from everywhere, but especially from the face and head.  Just as the consonants are delivered from the forward areas of the mouth, the vowel sounds should resonate from the “mask” area of the face – nose, eyes, forehead, and even the top of the head.

Humming, the Great Resonance Enabler.  Humming should be an essential part of our warm-up, as it connects us sensorially with forward placement and resonance.  Always hum gently, with lips together and teeth apart – in other words, with an open throat and a loose tongue and lower jaw.  (And of course, remember proper breath support!)  Feel the resonance not just over the nasal area, but more broadly everywhere from forehead to chin.

Roundness of Tone.  Roundness is what gives size, color and warmth to the tone.  It defines the character of the sound, its richness and identity.

The Yawn Effect.  Roundness is essentially about openness at the back of the mouth and the throat.  Think of yawning, and especially about the feeling just leading up to an actual yawn.  It’s a feeling of expansion in progress back there.  (Even the tongue lies down in submission, as we have probably noticed when we see a dog or cat yawn.)  Such expansion must never be held or locked, but induced and encouraged.  Think of it as a process rather than a finished state.  One useful method for this is to think of inhaling the first vowel you will sing.  Inhale with an open mouth and nose, and let the vowel shape the mouth.

Gathered Vowels.  Endemic to many amateur-level choral groups (including in our Jewish choral community) is a horizontal, mouthy, “uncultured” approach to sung vowels, where the mouth opening is spread too wide.  Such vowel spreading mirrors natural speech, and most singers are quite unaware that their vowels are spread, or of how much their sound could be improved by gathering/narrowing.  Vowel spreading robs the singing tone of its potential warmth, richness, vibrancy and carrying power, and it can be unduly taxing on the voice.  Why is this so?  It is simply a reality relating to the acoustics of the human vocal structure and apparatus.  Spreading the mouth for vowels inhibits the optimum acoustical setup for efficient vocal production.

Keeping our vowels gathered means simply maintaining the mouth opening within a width roughly not exceeding that of its relaxed state.  If you have your lips closed and relaxed, with a loosely hanging lower jaw keeping the teeth apart, you can feel the width to which you’ll want to restrict all of your vowels.  But remember not to force or lock your mouth.  Practice shaping all your vowels within this width, but in a liberated, tension-free way.

Line.  Here’s where vocal technique and musicianship converge.  Musically, line is the shaping and seamlessness of the vocal phrase through both vowels and consonants, an imparted sense of constant forward movement and arrival.  Technically, it is breath energy that is the engine propelling the vocal machine.  Steady breath energy is essential to the seamlessness and shaping of a line.

If we remember the simple principle that singing is the art of inducing, never forcing, we can never go too far wrong.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – The Best Starting Point for Choirs

vocalesePart I – Making the Case.  

In learning to sing, whether in a very serious and comprehensive way for grand career ambitions, or in simply learning some of the very basic fundamentals in order to be a more effective choral singer, or perhaps to sing folk or light pop in the local coffee house on Saturday nights, one undoubtedly encounters many different technical approaches and philosophies proffered by many different singing instructors.  Some might be tailored to a specific style of pop, religious or other genre.  But if one is seeking the most universally practical singing technique, the classical approach is ultimately the most useful for any and all styles of singing, and especially for choral singing.  Why is this so?

Before proceeding to explore the case for classical vocal technique, let’s be sure to distinguish the difference between technique and style.  Style has to do with a subjective, artistic approach to delivering a song or piece.  We are conveying an attitude by following a kind of recipe whose ingredients all contribute to the finished stylistic dish.  Some of these ingredients contribute to the general mood and attitude, others might address a broader set of cultural trappings.  Style is nearly always the embodiment of an evolved musical tradition.

Country music vocals, to take one example, are often sung in a twangy, nasal style, and the mood is often anguished and mournful, generally in keeping with the lyrics.  And of course these are routinely done in a mostly southern style accent.  There are a whole array of other carefully cultivated vocal mannerisms that contribute to this “country” feel.

Technique is the set of skills we employ to convey the style – the developed physical abilities that allow us to skillfully and effectively sing in this or any given style.  It is the machinery that produces the display, the lamp that shines the light. 

At the risk of confusing technique with style, let’s employ the term “classical” (small C) to name this technique.  Classical is also a broad style or group of sub-styles – Baroque, Classical (with a capital C, denoting an actual historic period of roughly 1750-1820, and including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), Renaissance, Romantic and 20th Century modern.  But we’ll use the small-C term classical to refer to the singing technique that began to grow and develop in Europe during the great flourishing of opera in the 17th and 18th centuries, and continues more or less unchanged to the present.  Here technique and style evolved together, the one to serve the other.

VIRTUES OF CLASSICAL TECHNIQUE

Efficiency.  By developing a technique that maximizes the balance of resonance and roundness of tone, we are able to produce the maximum sound for the least effort.  The voice attains more carrying power, richness, beauty, versatility and longevity.

Vocal Health.  When we produce sound with correct breath support and freedom from tension, we minimize the possibility of irritating or even damaging the vocal chords, and of developing the wrong muscles in the neck, throat and tongue.  With good classical technique, our vocal endurance is enhanced, even when we’re fatigued.  Over the long haul, we might well be enabled to sing beautifully for decades rather than just years.

Beauty of Tone.  Correct technique will help us render the voice in its optimum beauty and richness, no matter the style you’re singing in.  One of the endemic issues in amateur choirs is that of the spread tone, in which vowels are approached in a shallow, horizontal way.  The resulting “mouth resonance” tone is dull, uncultivated, uninteresting, lacking in warmth, vitality and, as it happens, carrying power.  Happily, this issue is not difficult to remedy with a little of our classical technique.

Versatility.  Proper singing technique in our classical fashion is beneficial pursuant to any style of singing.  Once you have it, you can all the more easily make technical adjustments to fit the style.

Choral Technique.  In the case of choral singing, regardless of musical genre, stylistic differences must be approached with more care and restraint than with solo singing.  Remember the concept of ensemble?  Whatever style elements are applied, they must be applied together as a group, otherwise the group will not sound together, and the whole idea of choral singing goes out the window.  This means that each voice must use the same essential tone quality, the same approach to diction, attitude, mood, etc. as all the others.

This is where it becomes essential to promote at a group level the basic fundamentals (at least) of good classical vocal technique.  Even just a few of the basics, addressed to the group consistently over time, can make a noticeable difference in the basic sound of a choir.  Then every singer will be more empowered to understand how to achieve these elements of style together, and the possibilities for good ensemble are all the more enhanced.

Remember:  Just because we’re learning classical vocal technique doesn’t mean we’ll have to sound like opera singers (though we could do a lot worse!).  Classical technique empowers us with a solid foundation on which to build whatever singing style we like.

In our next post, we’ll explore some of the elements of classical singing technique.     Join Email List

 

THE SCOOP ON SCOOPING: DON’T.

scoopHaving grown up, worshiped and worked as a singer/cantor almost exclusively in Conservative (i.e., middle-of-the-road) Jewish congregations, I take some entitlement to level a bit of loving critique at the current state of musical culture in the Jewish community.  A full measure of such critique I’ll reserve for a future post.

But for now, let’s discuss what may seem a rather petty complaint, one that has directly to do with something we have already covered at some length, one having much to do with the art of choral ensemble.  I speak of what I like to dub the “United Synagogue Scoop.”  I call it that because I have seemed to find it, along with the ever-present Jewish rallenando, especially endemic in the Conservative Jewish community.

Maybe the “USS” is somehow connected with our abiding affinity with ‘60s folk music, perhaps related to our illustrious “Jewish Liberal” culture.  Our United Synagogue Scoop is characteristic of that sort of music (much of which, I’ll hasten to add, I happen to enjoy as well).  From Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to Dan Fogelberg and beyond, you’re bound to hear it, for it is part and parcel of the style.  In fact, it’s an element found throughout most pop vocal singing, especially solo.  Perhaps because of this, we might subconsciously assume that scooping makes our vocals sound “legit” or authentic, or professional.  It doesn’t.

What for some kinds of music might be a valid stylistic element, can all too easily become an unconscious mannerism, not particularly problematic in solo, congregational or otherwise informal singing.  But it will get in the way of good choral ensemble which nearly always, regardless of style, calls for clean, scoopless pitches.

What is scooping, exactly?  Typically, it means sliding to a main pitch from another shorter (and usually lower) pitch, rather like a grace note.  In some types of scooping, the lower note is only a semi-tone or whole tone lower, while in other kinds, it can be as much as an octave lower.

There’s a Time and a Place.  Now there are occasions when scoops, slides, portamento and other pop mannerisms are called for and effective as expressive devices.  But as a rule – and if you need to break a rule, there must be one to break – as a rule, it’s important to know how to sing beautifully without such tricks, especially in choral situations.  Then on those very rare occasions when we do need to scoop, slide or portamento, these can be added and carefully coordinated with the group for proper effect.  But once these things become ubiquitous mannerisms, they can be distracting to listen to and difficult to refrain from, especially in those frequent situations where they are not really appropriate to the style.

Being True to Style.  Style is an important part of musical performance, just as it is in cinema, theater and clothing fashion.  Style is made up of different elements of approach, many of which are quite subtle, all of which are crucial to the cumulative effect being striven for.  Compare and contrast different pop music genres and see if you can discern such differences.  How is Country approached differently from Grunge or Hip-Hop?  They are also to be found in the various eras of classical music.  Bach and Handel, for example, are approached differently from Brahms or Schumann.

All of which is to say, there are artistically compelling reasons to avoid doing things that don’t fit the style.  More often than not, scooping is one of those things – and it’s very obvious.

Ensemble as we have learned, means together.  In most all choral music this means, among other things, that everyone in the group approach the music in the same style, delivering each pitch cleanly, accurately, with blended warmth and richness, and without scooping, sliding or other such mannerisms unless specifically instructed otherwise.  Lack of scooping should be the default approach to choral singing.

The First Step is Recognizing We Have a Problem.  If we want to lay the foundation of great Jewish choral culture (as at least some of us do), we have to learn to lose the scoop.  You may not even know you‘re a scooper, but it may be easier to hear in others.  Be ready to practice not scooping over a period of time, until your singing is nice and straight again, unaffected by years of indoctrination into the pop music manner.

Just say “no” to the scoop.  It’s all part of the continuing process of increasing our awareness of what makes for great choral ensemble.
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STAGGERED BREATHING – A BASIC CHORAL SKILL

K'vakarat by Michael Reid WinikoffIt’s tempting to think that when you’re singing in a choir or other vocal ensemble, you’re allowed to breathe whenever and wherever you want in the course of the piece you’re performing.  The truth is that you’re not – at least not officially.

Public versus Private Breathing.  By “official” I refer to the sort of breathing the audience or congregation can hear clearly, breaths that are taken together as a group or section, that also have a discernible effect on the presentation of the piece itself – call it public breathing.  The choice of where (or if) the group breathes is determined by the conductor, since breathing choices are one of the elements of interpretation – for example, to convey the music’s phrasing – and are not just about replenishing your air.  But of course, breathing is essential to that too!  No air, no sound.  And there will be frequent occasions when you’ll need to take an “unofficial” breath – often referred to as “sneaking a breath” – what we might refer to here as private breathing.

Being Sneaky.  Private here means the sort of breathing that the audience (hopefully) doesn’t notice.  The trick is to sneak such a breath at such a time and place, and in such a manner, that it can’t readily be heard and doesn’t interfere with the musical phrase or overall effect.  That is to say, the breath you take must be as quick and quiet as possible, and it must happen at a point where it is least expected – hopefully, where no other singers in the section (or at least as few as possible) are also taking such a breath.  Thus it is also commonly called staggered breathing – the art of sneaking private breaths in a coordinated fashion where everyone is sneaking them at a different time and place in the music, and in the process preserving the seamlessness and integrity of the phrase or effect.

One of the common occasions for practicing staggered breathing is in passages where the choir is called upon by the composer or arranger to provide a sustained accompaniment under a solo.  This accompaniment may be sung on a hum, an “ooh” or an “ah” vowel.  Another apropos situation might be a long or exposed unison phrase which must be perceived as unbroken, and so where quiet furtive breathing is essential.

Be Quick.  In a long, slow passage with long, slow notes, quick might mean breathing in the middle of a syllable, either in the midst of the vowel or, if absolutely necessary, dropping the consonant at the beginning of the syllable and re-entering your sound in the middle of the vowel.  If the phrase or passage is fast, with many rapidly occurring syllables, sneaking a quick breath will more likely be a matter of simply dropping one or more syllables.

Under these circumstances, never try to re-pronounce a consonant after its time.  A misplaced “S,” for example, is bound to stick out.  If you are taking a discreet breath and leaving off the S on “sake,” the rest of the group has pronounced the word complete with that S, so you would re-enter on the vowel only, without the S.

Be Quiet.  Taking a very quick breath noiselessly takes a little practice.  But the secret here is to have an open and tension-free feeling in the throat and a relaxed mouth opening, which will minimize the gasping sound and make for a quieter inhalation.  (Think of the high dive in swimming, where a minimal entrance splash is considered one of the signs of a good dive.)  This really goes for any sort of breath in singing, whether quick or slow, private or public.  Unless it’s for a specific dramatic effect (as it often is in operatic singing), loud gasping is to be avoided.

Tempo, Tempo!  Remember, however you choose to handle your private breath, you must always be able to re-enter your sound seamlessly and in perfect sync with the rest of the group, not behind or ahead of them.  This means you must take your breaths in accurate context of the tempo.  Get out and back in quickly and smoothly, so that no one but your neighbor will be any the wiser.

Safety in Numbers.  Effective staggered breathing is, of course, easier the bigger the group is.  But it can be especially useful and necessary in smaller choirs, where planning and coordination of staggering becomes even more crucial.  Theoretically, staggered breathing is feasible as soon as there are two or more voices on a part.  For any group smaller than this, consider treating the situation like solo singing, and simply take more frequent “public” breaths.

The skill of well-executed private breathing takes practice, both individually and as a group. But it is one of the fundamentals of effective choral ensemble.  The conductor/director might introduce exercises to develop this skill, especially on how to take quick breaths quietly, and on how to coordinate the staggering with one another.
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TOWARD AN EFFICIENT, PRODUCTIVE & HAPPY CHOIR REHEARSAL

rehearsal still life 2-1Nothing is more frustrating than a chaotic, poorly organized rehearsal session.  It is a waste of our valuable time, and quite frankly, kind of an insult.  Whether the disarray comes from leadership or rank-and-file (or both), it seems to make the statement that our time and effort are not worthy of consideration.

There is work to be done, music to be learned and refined, and the more efficiently we can do it, the better our results will be.  Having sung hundreds of choral rehearsals (some well-run, some not so) over the years, and having run quite a few myself, here some things I have learned, from both the leadership and the rank-and-file perspectives.

IF YOU’RE RUNNING THINGS –

Positive, relaxed energy equals vocal freedom.
Overall, the less stress and irritation you foster in your choral leadership approach, the better the singing you may get from your choir.  This means better vocal health.  Even a little tension can immediately be sensed, so keep your attitude, and your actual conducting, relaxed and positive.

Know the music you’re going to teach.
When a conductor shows up unprepared, not only is everyone’s time wasted and their efforts hampered, the conductor’s credibility and authority with the choir are diminished.  Set a proper example.  Have at least a practical, working knowledge of the text, notes and rhythms, and be able to convey to your singers a sense of what the piece is about.

Communicate.
When announcing the next piece, starting places, and any and all other information, be loud and clear with it, making it less likely you’ll have to repeat things.

Rehearse no more than two hours, and take a break.
For an extremely dedicated choir, perhaps two and a half hours of rehearsal is do-able.  That is about as much singing at a stretch as is healthy for any singer.  Plus, after this much time, concentration begins to flag.  Either way, plan on a 10-minute break.

Be organized.

  • Make and distribute an agreed-upon schedule of choir rehearsals, and stick to it.
  • Learn new repertoire over a long period and several rehearsals.  Time (along with repetition) helps to solidify new ideas.  Try to avoid cramming new things into just 1 or 2 sessions.
  • Have your sheet music organized for easy distribution.  Keep a few extra copies of each piece.  Make sure each score you are working with has clear page and rehearsal numbers.
  • Have a supply of pencils in case someone needs one.
  • Plan out your rehearsal agenda.  Here’s a suggested general plan:
    1.  Start with 5-minute choir warm-up, including training execises in vocal technique and musicianship.
    2.  Sing through and work on one familiar major piece.
    3.  Move on to new or challenging music.  Think of this as the core of the rehearsal.
    4.  10-minute break.
    5.  Spend the remainder of time with other familiar music, and to rehash new pieces.

Keep the rehearsal moving along.
Work diligently on each trouble spot, but don’t beat a dead horse.  If it doesn’t work after a few tries, come back to it later.  Try to minimize tedium.  If possible, avoid working only on new pieces, and work on those new things earlier rather than later in the evening, while minds and concentration are still fresh.  Try to intersperse easy, familiar, well-liked pieces with new music to keep the session fun and gratifying for your singers.

Be gracious.
I always try to remember this valuable principle of interpersonal relationships:  Preserve and enhance the dignity of others.  Avoid humiliation, embarrassment, shaming or being patronizing – which are never helpful or constructive.  A good thing to remember in all of our interpersonal dealings! 

Be patient, encouraging and positive; be exacting, but avoid brow-beating.
More than likely, your rehearsal is happening on a weekday evening, and the last thing anyone is in the mood for after a long work day is unnecessary abuse.  And it’s not likely to foster vocal freedom.  Stick to the goal of making your rehearsal a fun, positive, challenging and gratifying experience.  When the choir does something well, reward them with an honest, but not overdone, compliment.  When you hand out constructive criticism, precede it with a “good work!” and then tactfully communicate your concern.

Accept and answer questions gracefully, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer.  And even as you are the leader, make it feel like the collaborative effort that it is.

Get it right first time every time; avoid mislearning.
Take it from me, it is much harder to re-learn something previously learned the wrong way, than it is to learn it correctly the first time.  It’s like a stain on white fabric — much easier to avoid it in the first place than to try and completely eradicate it afterward.  Make sure to be correct from the outset.  And when something does get mislearned, make sure to correct it without delay.

Where are you starting?
This is an essential example of good rehearsal communication.  Nothing wastes more time at a rehearsal, with all of its starting and stopping, than unnecessary confusion about where you’re resuming from.  It’s important to communicate loudly and clearly to the choir, each time you resume singing, the following:

  1. which page
  2. which system
  3. which bar
  4. which beat – you’re starting at.

Always count into the entrance.
Most music exists in the strict context of time.  The choir can’t just start singing at random and hope to enter together!  So once you have established where you’re starting, always guide the choir into the entrance by loudly counting into it.  Example:  In 4/4:  “1, 2, 3, sing!” (choir enters on beat 1 of the following bar).  Of course this won’t happen in actual performance, but in a rehearsal context, it speeds things up and ensures proper learning.

Use the “Listen then repeat” method
When working out a tricky passage, be sure you and your singers use this approach.  Play or sing the notes correctly in rhythm while they listen carefully (no singing along), then have them immediately repeat.  If they are singing along (or talking), they aren’t really listening and absorbing those correct notes.

Rehearsal accompanist
If you have access to a good rehearsal accompanist, try and take advantage of this.  To make optimum use of their skills, be disciplined about communicating starting points, and about counting into the entrance.

ADVICE FOR THE GROUP –

Avoid unnecessary talking
Extraneous conversation is distracting to your conductor, and slows the rehearsal down!  If you must clarify something with your neighbor, do it as briefly and quietly as you can, then immediately tune back in to the conductor.

Listen and pay attention when not singing
These are the times when you’ll be getting important instructions.  Don’t make it necessary for the conductor to repeat information that has already been clearly communicated to you.  It’s a waste of time, and it doesn’t ingratiate you with your colleagues.

Even when other parts are singing but your part is silent, try very quietly humming your part along in the passage – you’ll end up having a head start when it’s your turn.

Organize your music
Arrange your folder or binder so you can easily locate any piece within 10 seconds.  Always bring your music to rehearsal, and don’t lose it – it’s expensive!

Know the score.
Know your way around it, that is.  You’ll find it very helpful to familiarize yourself with the overall visual layout of your sheet music, which can vary greatly from piece to piece.  You may encounter published scores, some of which are very poorly notated, or very hard to read.  Or you may have to read off of photocopied manuscript, which may be even worse.  Get to know where your voice part is, and mark it clearly on each system.  Then mark your part so you don’t get lost (as even experienced musicians sometimes do!).  When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Mark your music.
Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  Mark everything in pencil – breaths, breaks, volume and tempo changes –and assume you’ll have to erase it later.
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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.”

PITCH & TUNING
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.

VOWELS
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.

CONSONANTS
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.

DYNAMICS
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.

ATTACKS, RHYTHMS & RELEASES
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.

ACCENTS, ARTICULATIONS, SPECIAL EFFECTS
Everyone must observe and execute these things in the same way at the same time.

UNISON SINGING
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.

ACHIEVING GENERAL TOGETHERNESS
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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