- October 7, 2016 at 8:33 am #522727
I’m new to this discussion, but looking forward to its advantages. I’m in desperate need of help. I am the Director of Music at a small church that has one choir with 8 singers. We sing a range of music from unison to SATB. I am having MAJOR blend issues among other things. The singers are older ranging in ago from 50 to about 75, which is not new to me. I’m pretty sure the blend issues are due to improper breathing, diction., a lack of voice range due to aging, and also bad habits. I have tried doing some basic vowel production with them, but it’s not working. Even warming up by singing a hymn on “noo” just to get them to form their lips correctly can be a task. They’re not used to doing warmups, but they desperately need them, so I try to make them as basic as possible so they don’t feel overburdened/overwhelmed. The baritones strain their voices terribly especially if they have to sing an A below middle C or higher and because of that the intonation is awful. And the blend problems are more apparent and frequent in the men. I do have a tendency to choose music that is 2 part mixed or SAB just because they are so small, and they are not great readers, but feel that if a few issues could be improved, it would make a difference. In addition, whenever they sing forte, it sounds like shouting and I am not sure how to fix that. I realize that I can’t fix everything. Some things we have been working on is watching me (I have to direct and play at the same time.), and singing r’s correctly, example “heart”, “earth”, etc. Does anyone have insight to offer? Any input is extremely appreciated.October 8, 2016 at 3:25 pm #522799
I understand exactly what you’re going through. It’s a matter of fundamental technique, which can be taught. I highly recommend getting a copy of Prescriptions for Choral Excellence by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase Oxford University Press; available from Amazon). You’ll find answers to every problem that you mention.
Briefly, all the issues basically result from a lack of breath control. The fundamental technique that needs to be taught is the appoggio position of expanded rib cage and raised sternum.. This must be maintained at all times when singing, but virtually anyone can do it. Emmons and Chase explain it thoroughly, giving methods and exercises to achieve it. The one I use : have the singers raise their arms straight up and stretched, as if they were trying to touch the ceiling. That will expand the rib cage and raise the sternum. Call their attention to that. Then have them slowly lower their arms while holding the rib cage/sternum position. That’s the appoggio position, which permits the breath control essential to supported singing. As you go through the book you’ll see how important it is to all aspects of good singing.
Of course you need to present this in the most positive way., with lavish praise as your singers progress. I think you’ll find, for instance, that with the appoggio and careful progressive vocalizing, the baritones’ range problem will improve as much as a fifth. I had a bass in one choir I trained who was sure he could never do more than double the bass line down an octave. Basically he was singing only in his talking range (ones singing range can be as much as an octave above speaking range). He ultimately added nearly an octave on top, with a nice lyric baritone sound.
Concerning diction, I tell singers that singing diction is something like stage makeup: up close it may seem odd, but onstage under the lights it seems normal to the audience. For the American R, I have the singers practice saying “Very good, sir” like a British butler. The first R is done with the tip of the tongue only, almost like a D, and the last (final) R isn’t pronounced at all. So that “spirit” doesn’t come out “spear it,,” the R (tongue-tip) begins the second syllable.
I hope this will help you get started, and the book will take you as far as you want to go.
firstname.lastname@example.orgOctober 8, 2016 at 11:00 pm #522804
Hmmm… A couple of things stand out in what you said:
1. There are only eight of them so chances are some of them (all of them?) are having to play the hero and sing out of their natural range frequently just to make sure all the parts are covered. Singing out of range for a note or two is no big deal, but doing it regularly for extended periods of time is REALLY hard on the voice. Even for singers with great technique, it’s hard to sing without sounding strained and without doing cumulative damage to the voice that can be heard later. Takes time to recover any time you do that. So you may want to stop beating yourself up about the blend and devote some serious resources to careful music choice that works for the voices and ranges that you have. Take a hard look at music before rehearsal and look for places where you may need to revoice chords to better suit your singer’s ranges. If your singers love you and love singing, know the problems of a small group as well as you do, they may try to “suck it up” and play the hero. Don’t let them. Know where the problem spots will be and adjust the music from the beginning.
2. There are only eight of them. I can fake sing soprano from the middle of a large soprano section every once in a while without hurting myself, but if you asked me to carry the soprano part alone in a small group it would sound terrible. I’m an alto. In a large group, I can contribute some volume to a soprano line while modifying the heck out of the vowels to make them work for my alto self and I can quietly drop out on the highest bits, and it works, because there are enough real sopranos around me that I can modify vowels to “ah” and stop singing consonants altogether and no one will notice. That doesn’t work in a small group. There is no way to sing out of range without those modifications without the tone quality suffering. You can have nice tone, or diction, when out of range, not both. In a small group there is no way for the fake sopranos and fake tenors to hide and the blend goes off the deep end. Again, all you can do is be careful with your repertoire.
3. There are only eight of them and they are timid readers. Timid singing is never good for blend and tone. A few confident singers will probably try to inspire/make up for the timid ones by over-singing with great gusto, making the blend even worse. If you only have 1 or 2 singers on a part, do everything you can to help them learn their notes to complete confidence. Run lots of pieces every week, not just the one’s for that Sunday’s service. Work as far ahead as possible. Just a short run through of each piece is fine, but will help build confidence and familiarity with the music. You may need to do simple piece for a few weeks to build time in the schedule to start working ahead, but it’s worth it for the added confidence and familiarity that results. Search for youtube videos that you can send around as links so people who don’t take music home or don’t play piano have a way to get the tunes in their heads and gain confidence. Make your own youtube videos of you plunking the notes for each voice part so they can listen at home while doing the dishes. Make audio recordings of rehearsal on your phone and email them around to anyone who misses a rehearsal. There’s a great irony: the worse someone feels they are doing, the less likely they are to ask for help. The people who don’t know their music usually know they don’t, but being embarrassed about their wrong notes, they don’t want to burden the group or further embarrass themselves by asking for individual help during rehearsal. Be proactive about offering your help. Remind people that you are always a few minutes early to rehearsal/the service anyway, and that’s a great time to get help on any sticky spots without feeling like you’re holding up the rehearsal. (And be sure you really are a bit early, and if anyone walks in, ask if there are any spots that they want to run while they have you all to themselves.) Make it safe to ask for help. Admit and apologize for your own missed notes loudly, frequently, and without shame, so it becomes group culture that we are not born perfect, we just practice a lot.
4. Because of all of the above, chose SATB music whenever you can. You may think simpler is better, but the chances of two-part music fitting everyone’s ranges are slim. If you have sopranos and altos, one of those groups is likely to be uncomfortable with the range of a unison “women’s” part. It’s not just about high or low, it’s also about where the music sits compared with the meaty part of their ranges. The sweet spot for an alto is not the same as the sweet spot for a soprano. And the simplified arrangements often (not always) have to compromise the intuitiveness of the parts in order to keep ranges at a happy medium for everyone. Mozart practically sings itself. The voice leading generally hands your next note to you on a spoon. Once you’ve heard a piece a few times, it takes some real work to land on the wrong note. But the compromises involved in writing for fewer voice parts can take away some of that natural musicality, and make it harder to find the right note. It’s also easier to blend a chord than a unison.
5. Try some fast warm up exercises. The faster they are changing syllable, the more they fall into naturally correct singing technique just to get the notes out in time. On long notes we can get our tongues and lips and jaws into all sorts of weird places. But strings of fast syllables force us to keep our jaws, and tongues in a more neutral position. The same things that make for “bad” singing also make for inefficient singing, so they naturally weed out on fast exercises to a certain extent. The faster they have to think, the less they can overthink or get nervous, and the more they have to watch you. It’s a great way to build trust between singers and conductor. (Just be sure you’re pass the test! Don’t ask them to trust you and then take them too high, too low, or do anything confusing… Fast, yes! Confusing, no.)
Sounds like you are thinking hard about this and ready to put in the work. Dedication always yields improvement!February 2, 2019 at 9:33 am #586669
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