After the series of blogs on rehearsals, I thought I’d embark on a new series – this time on choral sound. I’ll try to be as practical as my theoretically inclined mind allows. The series is based on a lecture I have been lucky enough to present (and survive) several times in different seminars and festivals. I know it works as a presentation and demonstration, but I am optimistic enough to try to see if it survives the blog form. I will begin with a few principles.
First of all, I need to make it clear that there is no one ideal sound and no one sound ideal. Choirs come from different cultures, they sing different music, their singers speak different languages and they act in different contexts. All these combined with the ideals of the conductor (probably the most important ingredient here) lead to a rich palette of choral sounds that I think is one of the very best features of choral music!
Secondly, a choral sound is the amalgam of the choir’s voices. Our voices are as individual as our fingerprints and each choir, by necessity, should sound at least a little different from other choirs. My ideal is thus not a certain end result, but rather a method, which creates a sound that is both unified and individual.
Thirdly, the sound of a choir is both a result of the individual voices of the choir; the way the singers sing; and also how the singers sing together. My approach to building choral sound has, on one hand, aspects that aim toward better voice production on the individual level whilst retaining the individual colours of the voices and on the other aspects that have to do with creating awareness of other singers and singing in a unified manner. I will move between these approaches quite freely without being too systematic.
I have found that many choral singers have quite strange ideas about how to sing in choir. I believe this is the result of a few factors, the most important of which is the way choral singers hear their voices. Namely, they don’t. Most of the time they hear an amalgam of voices formed by their voice part and the singers closest to them. Many singers in fact feel quite lost in an acoustic where they hear themselves well, because they are so unaccustomed to hearing themselves in this way when singing in a choir. This lack of hearing easily leads to a lack of control over one’s own voice and makes noticing wrong habits more difficult.
The other reason for the strange habits lies in the nature of choral conductors’ feedback. Especially singers with little solo voice training are quite reliant on what feedback they receive in rehearsals. And here is the Catch-22: conductors mostly give collective feedback, but it is received by individuals. Think of the concepts of hypo-function (‘doing too little’) and hyper-function (‘doing too much’). Most of the time what the conductor hears is a combination of these too (and ideally, some really healthy singing). We react to the majority – if on the whole, the passage seems a little lazy or most of the singers are not opening their mouth sufficiently, we encourage the the singers to be more active, or in the latter case, open their mouth more. While this might be great advice to the majority of the singers, the ones overdoing it will overdo it even more. And if the passage improves we will say so, and thus possibly encourage unhealthy singing in some singers at the same time. And when this happens again and again over time, many singers think what they are doing is what is wanted, even if it is not a sustainable way of singing at all.
Most often, our singers also have a background in singing a certain way. For example, a tenor might have earlier sung in a choir with very few tenors and learned that volume is the most important quality. Again, you could say singers have been conditioned to sing in certain way. And if that way is not ideal, they will not necessarily realize it themselves. I have had many singers who have trouble first accepting that a change is needed, and, after acceptance, trouble changing their voice habits, because the way of singing is ingrained in the muscles.
I believe that it is easier to change singing through reflexes, metaphors, speech and emotions than through technical advice, especially considering that individual feedback is seldom possible. For some reason, people tend to react to technical advice by creating an extra tension. An example: try raising your soft palate and lowering your larynx to create more ‘space’ for the sound. Most people will respond to this by doing what is asked and with a tension in the base of their tongues (you can feel it just below your jaw bone). But if you are asked to think that your mouth is like the inside of a cathedral, you will in all likelihood create the wanted space without the extra tension. The same result you can get through a reflex, like the beginning of a yawn, or an emotion, such as being pleasantly surprised.
This is the dilemma we face: we want to change physical behaviour, but most of the time physical-technical advice leads to other problems. In this series of blogs, I will try to point out to ways that I have found useful in circumventing vocal problems. Partially these are just simple exercises, partially approaching problems more thorough engaging the singers’ minds than giving straight-forward technical advice. I hope they will be of some use, whatever your sound ideal is.
So much for theory, the next installment will take us straight into the nuts and bolts of working on choral sound.