In this last blog post on choral sound, I will concentrate on two aspects or approaches that are very much at the heart of my work in building sound. These are the quality of an individual note and creating awareness.
Building the sound of a choir is ultimately a slow process, in which our interest in the quality of each and every tone is paramount. You will understand that we can’t stop and fix every single note; what I want to say is that the work starts on the molecular level, not only in sweeping generalizations. And what do I listen to on this level? There are many methods and metaphors I work with, but here are a few ways of approaching the phenomenon.
One thing that I listen to and strive for is overtone purity – a certain richness of the note; a sparkle in the sound. Sometimes a note can be completely in tune, but still feel lacking – and even a little flat. This comes from the lack of ring at the top of the sound (you can actually verify this with a means like Spectrumview I described in the previous post). Very often this is caused by lack of energy, excessive pressure or vowels that are too broad and flat. A few things you can use to gain a richer tone are:
- ask the singers to activate the top part of their sound
- add energy; the same kind of bodily energy as one would have speaking on stage
- add flow; release the sound instead of pushing it, but do not be afraid of using a lot of it
- unify the vowels; you need both roundness; try [u] and for a forward feeling, use [i]
- ask the singers to sing sul fiato (on the breath) instead of col fiato (with the breath), floating the sound on the breath
- two vectors (described in earlier posts): forward and up
- chiaroscuro (light-dark); thinking that the voice is both bright and dark often brings out a good balance and better overtone richness
- work on overtone singing (lots of good guidance for this on youtube!); becoming aware of the overtones also helps regular singing
- make sure the attack or onset of the note is light and that people remember they are singing on the vowel, not the consonant, and that vowels and consonants are separate (phonation / articulation)
Another central element of working on sound is creating awareness. The idea is getting the singers to do most of the work themselves. To achieve this, they need to be made aware of what to do with their ears and their voices. Good singers automatically listen to pitches and how their voices blend in the whole and with the voices around them. But surprisingly often singers do not make much effort to fix the vertical. And if you do not sing pure chords, you will not have a great sound because you lose the overtone crown of the sound.
Singing in tune is naturally a topic for a separate session, but here a few ways of approaching both sound and intonation. First for all, what we often think is fine, is anything but, if we really dig into it. Try this: ask a voice part to sing a note on [ɑ] one singer at a time. I think you will surprised by how varied the vowels and even the pitches pitches actually are. What then? Perhaps pick one singer’s vowel colour and ask the others to match it. Of course, the same goes for pitch. For many, this will an ear-opener, an element they have never thought of. And thus, awareness is created. I think it is very important to explain that you do not want to erase the individuality of the voices. You just want to guide them in the same direction and work better together.
Just as well as it works for vowel colour and pitch matching, this method should also work with other aspects of singing, such as volume and vibrato (again, your taste is paramount here – guide the group in the direction you want it to go). Remember to tread carefully when working with individual voices because singers will at first be terrified. Keep it light, educational and almost like the lot of you were experimenting together. Avoid sweeping definitions of people’s voices – they tend to take them as the truth and remember them for ages. Ask for experiences, questions and explain what you are doing. I think you will find that the singers actually value your engagement with their voices.
Just one last suggestion: to improve the sound and tuning of the choir, the singers need to be aware of the lowest voice part (here bass) and relate their notes to that part. Every one needs to understand that tuning a chord is based on the bass, not the top part (here soprano), which is easiest to hear. Ask your basses to stand in front of the choir, facing the choir. First have them sing the bass line of a fairly straight-forward chordal passage until it is quite unified and secure. Then ask the tenors to sing their part listening to the bass and constantly comparing the notes of their line to the bass (guide them at any problematic spots). Ditto altos. Then combine ATB with sopranos listening intently and imagining their line on top if the other voice parts. Follow this with SB before singing the section SATB. I believe you will have a completely new kind of awareness of harmony and intonation after this exercise.
I have in these blog posts tried to give some ideas to use in developing the sound of a choir. Just remember, this is a skill, not just knowledge. You will find your own ways if you are bold and keep at it. You will find that you do not need to be a voice teacher to make a difference. After all, the orchestral conductor does not need to play each and every instrument to develop the sound of an orchestra. Trust your ears, use your imagination and have fun!