January 2009

Quick trip to Canada

Not me - I'm still in Birmingham - but my blog post for today is enjoying a trip over to British Columbia at the invitation of Tom Metzger. Pop over to Owning the Stage to learn about Musical Performance and Flow, and if you've not been there before, have a browse around the archives too. I think you'll enjoy it.

Choral Singing and the Big V Question

vibratoPut twenty choral practitioners in a room and ask them about vibrato and choral singing, and you will hear twenty different opinions. And if choral singers’ voices were as inflexible as these opinions can be, nobody would ever achieve a blended section. So I approach this question from a section leader in a barbershop chorus with some trepidation:

I have a Lead who has some vibrato in her voice. Do I put her in the middle of the section or is there some way I can help her to reduce this?

Singing With 'Warm Air'

I had an email this week from the Lead section leader of a ladies barbershop chorus, asking the following questions:

Hi Liz
I wonder if you can help me. Our M.D. has asked me to get my Leads to sing with warm air. Can you tell me how to do this? Also, I have a Lead who has some vibrato in her voice. Do I put her in the middle of the section or is there some way I can help her to reduce this?

Now, these weren’t questions that could be answered in just a word or two, and besides my guess is that my correspondent is not the only person in the world who’ll ever want to know the answers to them. So, I’m answering them here – warm air today, and vibrato in a couple of days when I’ve worked up the courage to tackle it. (Is there any more contentious subject in the world of choral singing?!)

The idea of singing with ‘warm air’ is really a metaphor, rather than a direct instruction.

Soapbox: Backing Off from Backing Off

‘Backing off’ is a standard metaphor for asking people to sing a bit quieter. In fact, it is so standard that we mostly don’t notice that it is a metaphor. But when you think about it, we don’t usually want people actually to move further away from us, we simply want them to sing in a way that gives that impression – i.e. with less volume.

But in real life of course, ‘backing off’ is also not just a spatial thing, it is also about attitude and behaviour.

What makes a tune unforgettable?

This is a question that everyone from hard-core music theorists to folk chatting down the pub have had a go at over the years. You already have your own opinion on the answer. This post isn’t intended to change your mind, but simply to play with a few ideas to see how they resonate with your experience of memorable melodies.

The ideas come from a book called Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath It is a splendidly interesting book that analyses the common characteristics of memorable ideas, and anyone who writes or teaches (or advertises or attends job interviews) would find it useful. I was revisiting their list the other day and suddenly wondered if the characteristics also apply to musical ideas. This post attempts to answer that question.

A Cappella Adventures in Amersham

Amersham A Cappella Jan 2009I spent a happy four hours with Amersham A Cappella yesterday afternoon. They invited me down not only to coach the chorus, but also to work with Helen, their director, and Rose, assistant director, on conducting technique. It takes a certain amount of courage for directors to put themselves on the line like that in front of their singers, and it is a testament to the spirit of trust and mutual support within the chorus that their directors felt willing to do so.

But it really paid dividends. I’m not knocking dedicated training events for directors – they do lots of valuable things that you can’t necessarily achieve working with a conductor’s own ensemble – but equally there are things that you can only do working with both director and their singers together. Such as:

Improving our Directing and Rehearsal Technique

tickOne of the challenges about running rehearsals is that there is so much to do that you rarely have time to notice how well you are doing. You can get so wrapped up in the needs of the choir and the needs of the music that there is very little attention left over to self-monitor. But we still owe it to our choirs (and our audiences) to improve ourselves, so here are several ways I’ve figured out over the years to address this:

Vowel Shape and Chord Voicing

When I was playing about with the ideas that produced my posts on Harmonic Charge and Harmonic Charge and Voicing, I noticed something about the words I was using to describe parameters of musical energy:

High-low (tessitura)
Bright-soft (harmonic quality)
Tight-loose (voicing)

Do you see what I mean? All the high-energy words have an I sound in them, while the low-energy words are built around the letter O.

Now think about how those vowels sit in the mouth when we sing them.

Warming up & breakfast

I sometimes feel a bit hypocritical when I skip breakfast.

You see, I go around telling anyone that will listen that just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the warm-up is the most important part of the choral rehearsal. It’s harder to say that with conviction if you’ve not eaten anything before noon.

So, we all know why breakfast is important. (If not - well you’re on the internet already, go and find out.) The reason I hold a parallel view of the warm-up is because - like breakfast - it might be a thing with one identifying label and be done at one specific time of day, but it is made up of a varied and flexible number of elements that simultaneously serve several purposes, both immediate and long-term.

Eu4ic Coaching Session

Eu4iaToday I had the pleasure of working with the quartet Eu4ia, who are currently preparing to defend their European championship title in Eindhoven in March. Eu4ia have been together for quite a few years now, having been LABBS national champions in 2001 and then having gone onto represent Sweet Adelines Region 31 at International level several times since. They are experienced performers, well in control of their technique, which makes them a treat to coach, as this meant we could focus our efforts on artistic questions.

One of the things I find fascinating when working with any singers, but particularly those performing at the more sophisticated and assured levels, is how much the sound changes when you change what’s going on in their heads.

Assessing Vocal Close-Harmony

This coming semester I will be teaching a class on arranging and performing vocal close harmony. The students are all specialist performers or composers in the 3rd year of a 4-year BMus degree, but most will have had little or no contact with close-harmony styles beforehand. So it’s a real challenge to take a bunch of intelligent musicians and see how far they can get in an unfamiliar style in just eleven weeks of teaching. It’s a small class this year, which will make it possible to give students more individual attention, so I’m looking forward to it even more than usual.

I’ve been over-hauling the course materials in anticipation, and thought I’d share the marking guidelines I’ll be using to assess them.

Harmonic Charge and Voicing

swipeIn this post I suggested a model to think about harmonic charge – the degree and quality of a chord’s inherent energy. This is useful for making arrangement decisions at the primary harmony/big-picture planning stage. It can also help with concrete questions of voicing.

Harmonic Charge

I've been thinking quite a lot recently about what music theorists call harmonic charge – that is, the amount of inherent oomph a chord has. Quite clearly some chords are more surprising, more jangly, have more of a frisson of energy than others. Having some way to diagnose the relative level of harmonic charge is useful for making both arrangement decisions and performance decisions.

On Mechanical Singing

A reasonably common problem among amateur choirs is the tendency to ‘just sing the notes and words’ – that is, to sing the music in a choppy, mechanical way. We often deal with this through vocal means, introducing a more continuous vocal support to underpin a more legato approach to phrasing.

But I think this is also a musical issue; it is also about how people are thinking about what they sing.

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