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Tell the soloist to tone it down!

Tell the soloist to tone it down!
How have you dealt with/or suggest someone deal with a paid soloist (professional opera singer) in a small choir to tone it down, blend, etc. when they have the ‘role’ of leading the section? I’ve tried things but it is not working out well. (I know they should know better – let’s not debate that.)
I’m asking more from a pedagogy point of view – a voice teacher, studio teacher point of view. How can I say ‘sing quieter’ ‘blend’ using other words? ‘Choir words’ that I use are not working well.
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on November 9, 2012 9:24am
What exactly do you mean when you mention blend? Are you talking about rhythm, articulation, volume, diction, vowel shape, phrasing? From my experience, a good ensemble sound happens when:
1. All choir members have a similar idea of good vocal production that is on the breath.
2. They sing the right note at the right time with uniform vowels, with an exception for modifying in various parts of the range.
3. The tone color and dynamic level is appropriate for the piece.
4. They are listening so that they are in balance with others around them in terms of volume.
5. They sing the articulation that is asked of them.
6. Their consonants are heard and are together.
Where is that singer placed in the section? If he/she is at the end of a row, that might not be the best place for him/her.
That is just my two cents. 
on November 10, 2012 4:04am
If you do the "add one voice" warm-up you may be able to shame PAID SINGER into blending without saying a word. First sing two notes at the same pitch, and make a very clear diference in volume. Ask your choir what you changed. After someone responds "Volume!" Say "I want you to match my volume just as I sing my note."
Sing several varying examples of the same note at widely varied volumes, some very soft, some very large, many different volumes. Then play follow the leader w. your best unpaid singer. After that singer is matching your volume, add one more strong unpaid singer to your group. Ask often "Is your volume just the same as mine?" and give many compliments for "great matching!"
Be sure to use a very small volume when adding PAID SINGER.
If PAID SINGER continues to bellow, put PS in a trio and re-do this exercise, always using the word "same" when matching volume.
Sometimes instead of starting with volume it helps to start with "same pitch" because it does not put PAID SINGER on the defensive.
If your unpaid singers don't sing by themselves, this works fine using two singers together, but usually singers who are focusing on matching one single aspect of sound aren't as self conscious as they are when simply asked to sing by themselves.
If you are doing this, be very certain that you are only changing ONE aspect of sound. If you are able to manipulate the timbre of your voice very broadly, you could probably get PS to use less vibrato too, but if you do pitch and volume PS will hopefully get the sense of what you want and cut back on the non-choral aspects of solo vibrato too. Hopefully you will begin to hear more accurate and focused sound in choral unisons by spending just a few minutes during every rehearsal on this warm-up.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on November 10, 2012 4:13am
"Balamce" is often a better word.  Perhaps you have used that. Surreptitiously: To the whole choir - do some purposely piano/pianissimo warm-ups, asking all to listen to every other part around them. "If you cannot hear the person sitting on either side of you, you are singing too loudly. Sopranos - let me hear all you.  We need to balance the volume." 
And in a passage or warm-up where your "pro" is singing too loudly - just directly at her, in a friendly way, "Sue - a little less - Jan, Julie, Joan, a little more!  I know you can do it!"
More directly, and in private:  "You have a lot of power, and I like that, particulally because your section can really follow you, but sometimes you are singing so loudly, I cannot hear the others.  Can you sing a little more quietly?  Perhaps you and I could look at where everyone is sitting and re-arrange the section for the best effect." 
This is an answer from a conductor perspective, but I think there is no magic voice teacher word.  She has a big voice, perhaps, and she sings to lloudly.  (and I am also a soprano with a big voice and one who can sing too loudly, too).  Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 10, 2012 9:19am
Danica! super suggestion. I love the direct approach, in private, I just needed some help with the words to say. "Balance" I will try that as well - esp. PS little less please, volunteers a bit more, I know you can do it.
on November 11, 2012 8:39pm
I'm a voice teacher, but when I'm conducting a paid singer, I don't use "voice teacher" words, because I find it opens all kinds of cans of worms--voice teachers, after all, disagree a lot!  Plus which, the person can get offended--they can take what I say as if I am telling them they don't know how to sing.  What I do instead is just ask for what I want as directly as possible.  "Fred, could you sing more softly?"  "Fred, could you match Joe's "ah" vowel in bar 23?"  Sometimes it seems like I can say things like this during a rehearsal, other times I feel like I'd better do it in private.  And sometimes it doesn't work--there are some operatic breathing techniques, for example, that make soft singing very difficult.  But other times, the singer has learned a more flexible breathing technique, and is able & willing to give up--temporarily--some of that resonance that they worked so hard to develop in conservatory.   Good luck!  Let us know how things turn out!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 10, 2013 7:57pm
Words you might use are "less vocal pressure" , "quitely focused", "pianissimo", "tiny tone", "less vocal presence", etc.
But, as a person who has been a Choral Director and a Staff Soprano in several situations, I wonder if there is a misunderstanding all around regarding the function of, as you say, the "role" of section-leading.
My voice, fortunately, is light, and this was rarely an issue with me.  I had significant respect for the trained soprano next to me who does have a big voice, and was barely audible in the choir.  She knew her liability.
So often - particularly in a difficult passage, or a challenging entrance, the director would stop and say, "Sing, sopranos!".  Usually I was singing, but, to keep from sounding as if I were the section, I generally backed off considerably when the others did not come in, or when they  sang very tentatively. 
Your section leader may simply be trying to do his/her job well.  S/he may feel that it is his/her job to be sure that the section comes in, and sings the phrase completely. 
Apparently, you have already done your thinking about how loud you wish your total section to be.  You might enlist P.S.'s cooperative ownership - meet/call him/her ahead of time, describing the various effects you want in the different passages of music, and how they can help.
One possible approach - depending on the size of your choir - is to privately, individually approach the other members in PS's section first.   (If necessary, tell them that you also plan to speak with PS about the issue.)  Ask them (volunteers) about their confidence level - do they need some extra coaching in vocal technique, sight-singing, or a cd/mp3 to practice at home?  If your volunteer members sang more confidently, and the soloist was singing just a bit lighter, would that achieve the result you wish?
Sometimes, when the director was asking for a particular character of tone, and blend was mentioned, I would stop singing momentarily to listen very accutely to the others - to hear exactly what they were collectively producing, and what I needed to blend with.    Somtimes that would cause them to stop, also!  Vocal tension can become an issue when any singer pulls back - if they are not trained in how to do it healthily.
-long story shortened: I hope that your volunteer members have the confidence to sing out, and are not feeling that they must "defer' to the soloist.  And, of course, the soloist needs to be sensitive to the total sound and blend/balance with it.  My H. S. Director used to say, "The most valuable choir member is the one who can sing the loudest without being heard!"  :)
Best of luck...or , by this time ;).. How did it turn out?
on January 11, 2013 7:31pm
I'd like to thank Lucy for reviving this thread, and bringing up some very important points.
And I'd like to suggest that what's at odds here is a simple semantic confusion, which can give rise to a far-from-simple confusion in expectations on the parts of conductor, "soloist," and section singers alike.  (And I put "soloist" in quotes deliberately!)
Whether paid or unpaid, there is a fundamental difference between a "soloist" and a "section leader."  (And those are not, of course the ONLY two functions for which we might choose a particular singer by any means.)  A "soloist" is someone who is expected, not to belabor the obvious, to take solos!!!  And solos, whether major or incidental, are not supposed to blend in.  They are EXPECTED to stand out, which is why the composer wrote them in the first place!
A "Section Leader," on the other hand, is supposed to lead a section, and it's worth thinking about what that actually calls for and what should be expected by and from such a singer.  But one thing a "section leader" should NEVER do, unless I've missed something important, is stick out and be heard above anyone else.  That isn't necessarily leadership.
Now it's worth emphasizing that some singers are quite capable of handling BOTH jobs, and doing so very well, but it's still rather important for the conductor to make the expectations of the job quite clear to candidates, and for candidates to understand quite clearly what those expectations are.  Because there are other singers who are NOT capable of doing both jobs well.
OK, what does a "section leader" do?  What does it really mean, to LEAD a section?  And perhaps the best analogy I can draw here is with the concertmaster and section principals in an orchestra.  The concertmaster leads the first violins AND the entire string section.  The other principals each lead their own section.  They're expected, as a matter of course, to step forward as soloists when a conposer calls for that, but it's probably less than 2% of their real job.  And that job is to make sure that everyone in their section is on the same page (both literally and figuratively!!), knows the music, knows the bowings, phrases together, comes in and cuts off together, and everything else that makes a section a section and not just a bunch of random soloists.
How much of that transferrs directly to choral section leaders?  Any or all of it (aside from the bowing, of course!), depending on the specific situation.  But one very important function is always to KNOW THE MUSIC, to play (or sing) it correctly, accurately, and as the conductor wants it, and to help anyone who needs help to do the same.  And of course in (for example) many church choirs or community choirs, tht includes acting as an "amplifier."
My brother-in-law has a very nice voice, but not a big voice.  But when he was still in high school his church choir conductor seated him next to another bass who had a gorgeous, big voice but could not read music to any noticeable extent, and Fred's job was to sing the bass part accurately and musically so that the man next to him would hear it and imitate it accurately, thus contributing to the sound of the bass section in a way he could not have done otherwise.
And we all know people who (like my late wife) were put on the alto part in high school choir because they could read music accurately and sing accurately and in tune and could pull the altos around them along with them to create a good section sound.  That's what an "amplifier" does.  The voice doesn't have to be big, and it doesn't have to be highly trained, but it has to be very accurate and very consistent.  (And before she had to stop singing becuase of her final illness she enjoyed singing 2nd soprano in our community choir rather than first, because the parts were more interesting AND because she could contribute in exactly the same way.)
But I've known a third kind of voice that is so rare that you may never have come across one, and it's what I call a "focus" voice.  It's a voice that is solid on its own and can certainly handle solo assignments, and a voice that can also blend well into a section, but has one more rare quality.  It can take the OTHER voices in that section and bring them together into a unified sound that CREATES a section sound that's more than the sum of its individual parts.  Not by dominating them, or forcing them to sing louder, or anything else overt.  Just by being what it is, and gathering the slightly different sounds together into a single unified sound.
I had never heard of a voice with this ability, but I was incredibly lucky when one of the 1st sopranos I picked when I took over the women's show ensemble, The Belles of Indiana at Indiana University, had that kind of voice, and while I had picked her to be my descant soprano she ended up also as my focus soprano.  And THAT allowed me, after a year of experimentation, to come up with what I considered a terrific balance of 3 first sopranos, 4 seconds, 5 mezzos, and 6 altos.  (No I don't care for a soprano-heavy sound!)
Now we all know that a section of only 3 1sts can sound absolutely DREADFUL if the voices don't absolutely balance and blend and have battling vibratos, but her voice made it work.  And ever since, although I've never come across a similar "focus" voice, I've always looked for that unified and wonderful sound from my 1st sopranos.
So to return to the original question, a conductor may WANT someone who can be both a soloist and a section leader, but it might not always be possible to find that in a single person.  So in that case the conductor has to understand that it's possible to have one or the other, but not necessarily both in a single person.  Or, to put it less tactfully, an operatic soprano may not be the best section leader in a section of relatively less-trained voices no matter HOW great she may be as a solist!
All the best,
on January 13, 2013 8:02am
Those focus voices definitely exist! My sister is one, somehow manages to color the sound and draw the rest of us into her beautiful sound. (yes she's a soloist, operatic and otherwise but can blend anywhere). Here as a soloist - and here as a child in our children's choir: - you can hear her tone already when she was a child.
on January 14, 2013 5:23am
Thanks for this, Ravil.  I'm challenged by this same thing with my new church choir.  There are some singers with very forward voices, I think due to cultural traditions, and I hesitate to ask them to "sing more softly" because then they overcompensate and are not on the breath.
on January 14, 2013 5:29am
Lovely! And love the children's piece...what is it?
on January 15, 2013 3:31am
It is Kodály's Angyalok y pástorok, translated into Icelandic. There must be an English translation of it somewhere. It's my all-time favourite Christmas song. :)
on January 16, 2013 2:16am
The English version is called The Angels And The Shepherds
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