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Blending

Liz Garrett hits it on the head again with a post about blending from a singer's, rather than a director's, perspective:

I have tried twice without success to join choirs that do 3 and 4 part harmony. I get rejected after a few sessions as i am told my voice does not blend. I know I have a good singing voice and i am very motivated, although I do not understand very much about music theory

The last attempt did not lead to any criticism from the coach but from the other singers near me. I am puzzled as to the possible cause of non blending.

Liz has a bunch of possible analyses for the blending problem (taking into account that she hasn't heard the singer herself), but I think the important feature is to see it from the singer's perspective. Being told you "don't blend" isn't very helpful. And this is somebody who takes voice lessons so it isn't (presumably) a matter of horrible production problems.

I'd guess that most likely it's just that the singer is singing too loud and overbalances the other singers in the section. But it's incumbent on us directors, even if we're kicking the singer out, to tell them what the problem is and how they might fix it.

P.S. The Blenders are a terrific a cappella group. And don't forget that Fred Waring, leader of the swing ensemble The Pennsylvanians, is the same guy who invented the blender. (Actually he didn't invent it; he just formed the company to sell it.)
on November 1, 2010 6:40am
Great topic.
 
I wish I had a dollar for every singer who has ceased singing in choirs because some choral director told them they did not "blend".  How could Robert Shaw audition the finest voices possible for his groups - people who most of us would be happy to have as "soloists" - and yet have any blend?  Simple. When we teach/coach/direct our singers to develop their voices to their best, they will have a sound that works with other voices.  We should develop singers, not a section or choral sound.  There's also the voice placement technique espoused by Weston Noble that allows for the distribution of voices within a section to create a better "blend" without sacrificing a singer's individual quality of sound.
on November 1, 2010 8:45am
I think i had a similar problem, which some directors are more patient about than others. My ongoing struggle is with clear vowels, and extraneous 'ch' sounds in some languages. But found solutions in singing in small ensembles devoted to polyphonic music in which balance, voice leading, seeing[watching for] each others breathing, gives us the incentive to blend- or -if called for- stand out. A cappella helps.
SIR
 
on November 1, 2010 9:03am
Allen et al.
 
I can't tell who is quoting whom here, so this is a generic response.  There can be any number of reasons why a given singer does not "blend" with other singers, and singing too loudly is only one of them.  A cutting sound could be another, a wide or wobbly vibrato another, and I'm sure there are others.  But when more than one conductor says it's a problem, yes, it's a problem!  And I would never attempt to diagnose the problem without hearing the voice, AND the choir.
 
My choreographer once turned down, without discussion, a championship ballroom dancer (and a male dancer at that), because while he was a superb soloist, he would never have been able to match the unison of the other dancers, and they would never have been able to match him.  In dance terms, he could not "blend," and would only have been useable as a soloist.
 
And Jim, I seem to recall someone asking Shaw how he managed to get such a beautiful blend (perhaps talking about his sopranos), and his answering that he simply hired the singers who had that sound to begin with!
 
On the other hand, I was once surprised and delighted to discover that one of my sopranos had what I called a "focus" voice:  different from simple blending, she had a sound (and a good, soloistic sound at that) which seemed to gather the sound of the other sopranos and mold them into a unified sound that was quite wonderful, without ever sticking out herself.
 
And while bringing Waring into the discussion is a cute aside, it's also irrelevant!  No, he did not invent the Waring Blendor, but he backed and marketed it.  And the "Waring Blendors" had nothing to do with The Pensylvanians in their heyday.  They were a latter day add-on group functioning as a small show choir, in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences.  And the correct spelling was, indeed, "Blendor."  (It was a marketing decision.)
 
Fred, too, hired the best voices around, and paid the highest salaries around, but HE created the sound that he wanted.  When my mom came back from one of his first workshop sessions at Shawnee-on-Deleware, she said that he had coloratura sopranos--really GOOD ones!--who were singing the down-and-dirty low alto parts in The Pennsylvanians.  (Perhaps only one; I think that in the '40s he was using only 3 women, over 16 men.)  But the point is that perhaps we over-classify voices and would do better to pick them and use them for what the individual voices are capable of doing, and for the flexibility they might actually have.
 
I've also never heard The Pennsylvanians called a "swing ensemble"!  Glenn Miller had a "swing ensemble."  So did Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and quite a few other folks.  Fred Waring did NOT!  He had something unique which has never been duplicated by anyone else, but that inspired a great many successful choral conductors--including Robert Shaw, who served as his assistant.
 
All the best,
John
 
on November 1, 2010 4:18pm
This post is off the subject of "choral blend," but the mention of Fred Waring and Robert Shaw brought back to me a not-often-remembered experience that might be of interest to some choral conductors.
 
The undergrad college I attended was Christian fundamentalist and forbade the singing of instrument-accompanied sacred choral music by any of its choirs.  So, I never experienced any of the great sacred choral masterworks until after I had graduated.  Musically, I was deeply naive.  My college choral conductor (who tried mightily to change the policy), who also was my singing teacher (the great Charles Nelson, who became a Texas voice and choral music icon) was a great admirer of Robert Shaw, and therefore, so was I. 
 
So, as an about-to-graduate undergrad in 1962, I signed up for one of Fred Waring's Shawnee-on-Delaware workshops, because Robert Shaw was going to have a 9AM to 11AM session on Thursday of the week.  I wanted to experience this god-respected conductor to learn for myself whether he was a god of choral singing or not.  [Later, I sang in other short Shaw workshops and sang in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Chamber Chorus 1965-1967, Shaw's last two years there (George Szell was Music Director/Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra then, and Louis Lane and Shaw were Associate Conductors.)]
 
There were about 65 workshop attendees and males were a considerable minority of the singers.  On that Thursday, Shaw started us singing with the English-translated "How lovely is thy dwelling place" from the Brahms German Requiem (piano accompaniment).  By the time the words "dwelling place" came along, I literally could not continue singing.  I swear that the beauty of Brahms' music literally took my breath away.  I recovered and resumed singing, but that experience was deeply etched in my memory banks.  As we continued rehearsing the Brahms and "Credo" from Schubert's Mass in G, and "Kyrie" from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and selections from other great masterworks I continued to be transfixed in a wide-eyed, virtual out-of-body experience. 
 
But an event of 'historical' importance happened after Shaw left.  Waring had the next session, and he began by telling us his perception of Shaw and his own relationship with him.  He told about observing Shaw rehearsing and conducting a choir at a small southern California college, and how deeply impressed he was by the young man's work.  Waring was so impressed, if fact, that on the spot, he offered Shaw the job of preparing his choruses--The Pennsylvanians included. Shaw accepted, moved to New York, and spent (if I remember accurately) about two years prepping Waring's choruses.  Then Waring said--pretty much a direct quote, "He got mixed up in the Bernstein-Copland crowd and one day he just left without saying a word.  And we have not seen each other or spoken ever since."  A participant asked, "Did you meet and talk to him today?"  And Waring said, "I wish we could have, but no, we didn't.  He left right away."
 
Hmmmmm.