At the end of the introductory blog, I promised to get down to the nuts and bolts of working choral sound in the next installment. I’ll start with a general theme that is completely central to building sound: feedback.
I covered some of the problems regarding feedback in the previous blog. The most important of these is the general-specific dynamic, namely that we give collective feedback that is received by individuals. This means our feedback, for the most, is a reaction to the dominant strength or weakness (in tune / out of tune or tight / free etc.) that we hear at a certain moment. In most instances the feedback and advice we give based on this strength or weakness covers and guides only the actions of the singers who are in the majority at the moment. The ones – and there always tend to be some – who are not, will in fact receive advice that ill suits their singing. How to take this into account?
First of all, being aware of the problem helps. I think it above all helps not to repeat the same advice over and over, because you will understand that, in all likelihood, it will not work for everyone. Vary the approach, use different words, different metaphors, different technical approaches. And if you find an approach that seems to work really well, use it as a trigger. It will only work for a certain time, but until you sense a tiring to the trigger, it can be a great way to go. These triggers can be very concrete or very abstract (‘Jaw!’, ‘overtones’, ‘distance’, ‘body’). Just remember, they have a best by date, so again: variation is the key.
Secondly, use your eyes. Follow the physical reactions of the singers to your feedback or guidance. There are lots of give-aways from amazement to frustration. Follow them and react (you can even ask the singer what feels strange or frustrating). Watch the singers while they are singing. It is not difficult to pick up technical problems – mostly they become visible through clear straining of the muscles in the neck-jaw-face area. Do not be afraid of giving individual feedback. The first time it happens, all the singers will be shocked, but if you do it in a friendly, professional and relaxed way, it will soon become a natural element of the rehearsal process for the singers.
When building sound, we are working with something quite abstract and we often have to be very creative in finding a way to express what we are after. This tends to lead to longish conductor monologues. There are situations where it is necessary to explain things at length, but as rule, try to keep it short. I have found it is better to try things that may not work than interrupt the rehearsal for a long time while looking for a perfect solution. Try one fix, then another. Often things take a change for the better just through repetition and singers are often clever enough to work out ways of solving your problems on their own – as long as they know what the problem is.
Especially in working with singing, non-verbal feedback is really crucial. This naturally goes for conducting (which we will come back to later in this series), but just as important is how we support our words with our gestures and expressions or how we hold our bodies. A crucial element is energy: it will be much easier to sing well if you project a sense of relaxed, but focused energy. People read each other’s gestures and tones of voice better than their actual words. Use this to your advantage.
One form of verbal feedback that is an excellent tool in creating good singing and sound, is singing. Some conductors are shy about using their voice because they feel that they are not good enough singers to convey what they mean. To them I would say, forget your anxieties and sing. Very few things will explain your thoughts as efficiently, and the singers do not demand perfection from you. Some conductors, especially ones that are singers, can overdo it. Singing long passages or repeating a phrase several times seldom helps more than just singing the precise passage you want to demonstrate. And most of all, avoid showing what was wrong, unless you carefully explain what you doing. It is usually more efficient if you just give the correct model.
In all feedback in general, and feedback on sound specifically, being consistent is paramount. Establish good practices and teach the singers what you desire of them and in time they will start doing most of the work themselves.