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ChoralTech: Easy for You to Say!

We've talked several times about easy ways to share audio examples with your ensemble, and ways for your singers to share recordings back with you. While we all strive to support our musicians to be independent as much as possible, there are always limiting factors: time, both for us and for them, and choristers' access to some kind of pitch/keyboard and reading abilities. That doesn't mean that we can't still get good feedback on our musicians and find individual errors that can be fixed outside of rehearsal to give us big gains in our next rehearsal period. For a quick, painless, but very insightful look into some of the roots of our intonation and rhythm, check the diction! Here are a couple of ways that I might do a quick diction check that could pay huge dividends for your next rehearsal.
Lay The Foundation
First off, this works really well with small, deliberate excerpts rather than entire pieces (although that can be beneficial for other reasons later on). Choose an excerpt scheduled for your next rehearsal, either something with difficult text or a section that just hasn't clicked yet. This can be done with either foreign language text or native language. If this is a piece that you've already been working on, singers can speak the text in rhythm/tempo, otherwise they can simply recite the text slowly. In either case, the rules are just like in singing: speak the text with importance on the vowels so that you can hear them clearly, and perform any schwa or rhythmic consonants that you've requested. Finally, give them a model recording (especially with foreign language!).
If you have a choir wiki or blog, you can use that for this purpose (as long as it's private-- probably don't want the outside world hearing the piece at this level!). If not, create a Dropbox account and upload your model. Share the folder with all of your choristers so that they can upload as well. From here, you have two choices: outside of rehearsal or in.
Outside of Rehearsal
If your group has access to smartphones, tablets or most modern computers with the ability to record video, it's quite easy for them to record themselves in the comfort/safety of home speaking the text and uploading it into Dropbox. You might need to ask a couple of tech-savvy people in your group to help other members out, or at least be available to answer questions. Ask them to name the file with their names and the excerpt to make it easier for you to find (e.g. Jeff_Tillinghast_Pseudo_Yoik_mm48_56).
Inside Rehearsal
If you don't think that your group is ready to make that leap, or you want to get the first couple of attempts out of the way before you ask them to do it independently, you can do it during rehearsal as well. Generally speaking, I try to avoid things that pull musicians out individually during group time-- it's distracting, noisy, and it means inevitably that someone will miss a note/edit/correction. Most of us have so little time with our whole groups assembled as it is that giving up that time is a hard pill to swallow. Regardless, hearing each musician is useful information and can make a big difference in the group sound, so sometimes it's worth it. In this scenario, I would find a practice room, outside area or any quiet place and park one computer/tablet/smartphone there. Start with one end of the back row and ask each singer to wordlessly leave, recite the example, come back and tap the next person in line to send them in. You can move people very quickly through this process. One advantage for you of doing it this way is that you end up with all of the audio files in one place. You can upload them to Dropbox en masse, or simply keep them on whatever device you used for recording.
Diction Helps!
Exercises like this are all about observation-- like with rehearsing a large group performance, you may not know exactly what you're listening for when you hear each musician recite an example. For both you and the singer, though, hearing that two or three members of a section are using a different shade of vowel or have poor timing on a dipthong can immediately correct issues of rhythm and pitch that otherwise would remain buried. This experience can be done relatively quickly for each person, and set up in a way that even listening to 50 examples of 30 seconds each isn't a massive burden on your rehearsal preparation.
What About You?
Do you do "diction checks?" Are there ways that you would use a spoken text recording from your musicians? Comment below!