I believe that singers can vary their sound much more than we, or they, believe. And as I earlier claimed, this variation is easier to achieve through other means than vocal technical advice. In this blog post I will look at two means that I believe work, at best, like a dream: metaphors and gadgets.
I believe that singers can change their sound much more radically than we conductors tend to believe. As I earlier claimed, this variation is more easily achieved through other means than vocal technical advice. In this blog post I will look at two means that I believe work, at best, like a dream: metaphors and gadgets. If we start with metaphors, here are a few approaches:
- Ask the singers to sing a familiar passage as far forward (in their mouths) as they can. Then ask them to do the same as far back as possible. I think you will surprised by how different these sounds are. Then ask the singers to try something like 60 back and 40 forward (50/50 – 45/55 etc.) and just see if you can find a colour that pleases you.
- Ask the singers to sing a line or a passage. Then ask them to think of two vectors – forward and up. Ask the singers to stretch forward their left arm whilst singing and concentrating on the forward vector. The add the right arm (stretched straight up) and add the upward vector to the sound. In most cases you will notice the sound becoming clearer, the placement becoming higher and the sound carrying better.
- Ask the singers to sing a passage as if they were singing with the best possible voice of a 17-year-old. I emphasize the best voice because the idea is to find the positives (lightness, suppleness, brightness) in the metaphor, not a caricature of a young voice. Then ask them to give you the same with the best voice of a 37-year-old. And ultimately a 57-year-old. These tricks help the singers understand that they can vary their sound in a completely healthy way.
- The same goes for nationality (this will always give you a laugh or two!): ask the singers to repeat a passage and call out different nationalities (‘Sing like an American choir’, ‘Sing like a Norwegian choir’). Again, you will find that the changes are quite dramatic and you will accrue material to work with.
- You can also try visualization in this context. Listen to how the sound changes as people start to connect a certain picture to the music. You can start from the poem: What time of day is it? What is the light like? Where are we? What season is it? What is the temperature? What colours do we see? You can also start from the music: What kind of scene (of a film) would you have for this music?
- Tap into emotions and sensations: Do you remember what it was like to rush to a meeting with someone you loved when you were young? Remember the scent of the lilacs? Singing is predominately an automatic response to our need to express ourselves. Emotions tend to bypass the rational mind and create a stronger mind-body connection.
- Strange metaphors often help sound in surprising way. ‘This is like a million flies buzzing all around’ or ‘this should sound like a sunflower field’ are not very precise ideas and all the more powerful for it, because the singers will activate their imaginations. Don’t be afraid of being intuitive and vague – ironically, you might find these metaphors give the best results.
Another simply wonderful way of approaching singing and sound is the use of toys, objects and technical devices. I gather all these under one umbrella: gadgets. Here are a few to try out:
- Soft ball. Hold the ball high in your hand squeezed lightly (until it becomes a flat disc 3-4 cm thick). Then as the choir or voice part sings, release the tension and let the ball expand to its original dimensions. You will notice the singers creating more space in their mouths (lifting their soft palate and letting the larynx assume a relaxed position).
- Hand puppets. In essence, the same trick, but with the puppet side-on to the choir, you can show a flat low space in the mouth and then open a space at the back of the mouth.
- Slinky spring (the things that ‘walk’ down stairs on their own). Create a feeling of length and energy in the bodies of the singers by extending the spring both up and down. You can also use it to emphasize head voice (only extend upwards) or chest voice (only down).
- Rubber band. Identical in function to the slinky spring. Either use one yourself to show what you want or give each singer their own rubber band that they can either use by mirroring your actions or by themselves.
- Straw (the plastic tubes used for drinking). This is my favourite at the moment. It has several uses. I firstly use it both for activating the breathing muscles and for restricting over-breathing (the panicky sucking in of air). Secondly, it is an excellent medium for a warm-up: just vocalize with through the straw. But its most important use is to encourage good singing. Singing through the straw keeps sub-glottal pressure ideal, activates the body and gives the singers a model of ‘slim’, focused vowels, as well as a high placement of the voice. It is also an excellent means if circumstances prevent singing in full voice! I use the straw both in warm-ups and in rehearsal proper (a difficult phrase often becomes quite a bit easier after one ‘straw version’).
- Spectrumview. More technical gadgets can also work wonders. Spectrumview is an app for Apple devices. It gives you a real-time spectrogram and spectrum analyzer display with which to demonstrate the overtone structure of a sound. It makes the very vague concept of overtones concrete and helps explain why an overtone rich sound is important and also shows what kind of singing results in rich overtones. Just have the choir sing one unison note and you will see the overtone structure on the display – many singers (and conductors:) will be baffled by the data. Especially good for the more technically minded choristers.
- Metronome. Sound is never detached from rhythmic precision. Imprecision as such makes the choir sound a little murky and singing well with good ensemble becomes quite impossible. Sometimes it is good to pinpoint where the singing tends to fall forward or lag behind by the use of a simple metronome.
The idea in all the above is, of course, not to use gadgets all the time, but rather use them occasionally to open new paths and create awareness of things which are often very difficult to verbalize.
Like all choral conductors tend to do, I pick up ideas and methods that I come across. I try them out, and the ones that work for me become part of my bag of tricks as conductor. Many of the ideas presented in this blog post have roots in ideas presented by colleagues near and far. Thank you, amongst others, to Zimfira Poloz, Simon Carrington, Matti Hyökki, Tommyanto Kandisaputra, Laura Salovaara, Christo Burger, Renée Fleming (check out the youtube videos of her teaching voice!).