Category Archives: Singing

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

DON’T BE TIMID! Commitment in Performance

piper 2-1At this past July’s North American Jewish Choral Festival in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, we had the chance to hear many choirs of varying skill level.  Two of the tell-tale signs of a group’s degree of accomplishment were its degree of confidence and its energy level.

Among the very best of these choral ensembles was the select group of young singers from the International Jewish High School Choir, who performed with a degree of commitment and certainty not often encountered outside the professional realm.  These young people possessed a thorough knowledge of the music they were singing, and they gave a passionate, energized performance throughout.  This was true of all the best ensembles we heard.

The tragedy was how easily one or two hesitant or missed entrances, or lackadaisically executed soft passages, seriously marred some otherwise respectable performances at the festival.

Timid Doesn’t Cut It.  There is simply no place for hesitation or timidity in choral singing, or indeed in any sort of performance.  That awkward entrance by the basses, that lack of energy in quiet passages, and worst of all, the unnecessary sagging pitch which happens out of carelessness – these things simply don’t sell with the listener.  Effective performance, whether in concert or in worship, means being fully committed, and fully engaged in the music.

What are the causes of timidity in performance, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

Quiet doesn’t mean weak or feeble.  It’s a natural subconscious assumption we all tend to make, that when we get soft, we can somehow relax, go on “auto-pilot,” use less energy or, in the most common phenomenon of all, slow down.  On the contrary, it is in these quiet, piano places where heightened energy is especially important.  Without it, the passage simply won’t read well from the audience.

Low Energy Leads to Flat Singing.  If we are singing without full engagement, we are less likely to be fully “tuned in” to the rest of the group, and that’s where sagging or otherwise faulty pitch can more likely happen.  Good ensemble means everyone must be singing in the same key!

Nerves Undermine Confidence.  For any performance, you must assume that you’ll be nervous – that is, unless you are such a veteran or you’ve performed the music so many times that you could do it in your sleep.  (And in that case, the danger might be low energy – see above).

While nervous energy can actually work in our favor, often with performance nerves, we become less certain of everything, such as entrances, proper pitches, correct rhythms, etc.  Our vocal abilities are also compromised – we suffer from dry throat, less solid breath support, and tension.

The best way to combat nervousness, and even use it to our advantage, is to concentrate intently on the music, on performing all the tempo and dynamic subtleties you should have learned in rehearsal, and of course, on staying scrupulously in tune.  When you’re focusing carefully on these things, you won’t have time to think about being nervous.  And this means that you must….

Know Your Music!  Perhaps the main cause of hesitation or timidity in performance is not knowing what you’re doing.  Be confident and comfortable with every note, every rhythm, every nuance of loud or soft, slow or fast, both as an individual singer and as a group.  If you can know the music well enough to look at the conductor at least occasionally, the performance will be all the more solid, and knowing the music thoroughly will make the experience far more gratifying for you, for the ensemble, and for the listener.

commitment2-1Sing Like a Leader.  Make it your business to be a strong link in the chain of your choir.  When you “own” the material you are performing, you have less need to rely on others around you, and you can make entrances and cues with authority.  Of course, this works far more effectively if everyone can sing like a leader, and there are no weak links!

He who hesitates is lost.  Chazzak, chazzak (“Be strong, be strong!”).     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

FOUR PREREQUISITES TO AN ENHANCED JEWISH CHORAL CULTURE

instruments-1In our Jewish community, we are desperately seeking something to enhance the beauty and interest in our services.  Those of us for whom instruments in shul are not permitted under the laws of observance, the only real way to add dimension to our music is choral singing. Choir music in the synagogue is by no means new, and in fact there is a long history of it throughout Europe going as far back as the late Renaissance with the likes of Salamone Rossi.

But we have a lot of catch-up work to do in our choral singing compared to the church community, from which we can gain some valuable perspective on music making.  Here are some general areas we might concentrate on.

Improved Musicianship.  When it comes to fundamental musical skills, a little improvement can go a long way toward enhancing our realm of repertoire possibilities, for we will use these skills endlessly.  When we speak of cognitive musical skills, we are referring to such abilities as reading music, specifically sight-singing (which, incidentally, isn’t necessarily possessed by even skilled instrumentalists who read music).  Good sight singing requires the further skill of hearing and recognizing in our ears the various tonal intervals, as well as seeing and recognizing these intervals on the printed page, and ultimately correlating the audial with the visual.  The same is true of the rhythmic element of music.  Of course all this means also knowing our way around a printed score, gaining the acquaintance with the beautiful language of written music.

Improved Vocal Skills.  Vocal ability – singing ability – means being able to produce the tone beautifully and efficiently, and with enough control to execute changes in dynamic and articulation, as well as produce beautifully shaped line.  These are largely skills of physical coordination related to the physical act of producing sound.  Again, as with musicianship, a little skill enhancement can make a big difference here.  See the post on singing basics.

Team Work/Ensemble.  Choral music and choral singing are nothing if not about unity – unity of tone color, vowels, consonants, dynamics, tempo, rhythm – in short, a closely-knit team effort in regard to every aspect of the music.  This is the art of ensemble (meaning “together”), and it requires learning how to listen even as we are singing, being perfectly tuned with the rest of the group, and being able to adjust and change course in a split second as necessary.

Improved Musical Knowledge & Taste.  In our wider secular culture these days, there seems to be a narrow (and continued narrowing) sense of what constitutes good, or indeed great, music, with more and more of us shunning higher musical culture as something we are not worthy of, that we should be intimidated by, or that we owe our disdain due to its elitist trappings. Worst of all, for an apparently increasing number of younger people  there is an out-and-out ignorance of this higher musical culture, a completely deprived sense of what truly great music is,

One can sense this even within the pop realm, with the music displaying less and less melodic, harmonic and formal (not to mention literary) substance. Let’s ask ourselves:  how many pop songs of the past 20 years have endured as standards in the way many of the songs of Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan or Burt Bacharach have endured?  Those artists were still operating under an awareness (even when they outwardly rejected it) of the fundamentals of substantive music.

This cultural void is, if anything, more pronounced in the Jewish community, which has had a long history of being excluded, and excluding itself, from the higher culture of whatever wider community has surrounded it.  For a Jew to be included individually in this higher culture, historically, has often required assimilation and/or renunciation of one’s Jewish faith and culture. Such requirement may have receded, but the Jewish sense of obligation to it doesn’t seem to have faded completely.

Given the glorious legacy of Jews in American popular culture through much of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that this first real era of Jewish inclusion and importance in a broader culture should hold such a perpetual and affectionate attachment to Jewish self-identity in America. One senses a great jealousy and need for such a legacy of inclusion, and its attendant sense of identity, in the British or French Jewish communities, to name two.

All of which is to say, we American Jews revere our pop culture – so much so that we may not think twice anymore about elevating it to the level and status of high culture.  But at the very least, shouldn’t we be more willing to explore other territories which carry much higher and historically much longer reputations for quality and substance?  And in our efforts toward enhancing our worship and ritual, shouldn’t we be aiming as high as possible?  And if we’re being elitist, isn’t this entirely appropriate for our musical offering to the ultimate Aristocrat, the Object of our awe and reverence?

As we discussed in the previous post, pop music is fun, and occasionally may rise to a level approaching that of high art,  But even at its best, pop music will almost always be about romantic love and courtship, and will therefore have an element of the secular, and even the sexual, in it.  Let’s therefore be careful not confuse our attachment to popular music with a misperception of its appropriateness in the sacred realm.  And more subjectively, let’s be cautious in assigning it more qualitative status than it might deserve.

In all of these areas, we can and must learn a lot from outside the Jewish realm, and yes, this includes the church community.  If nothing else, we can prosper from seeing what is possible (and necessary) qualitatively in terms of singing and musicianship, qualitative taste and standards, and in terms of the power and effectiveness of well-chosen worship music.    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