Steve Ericson’s Tips for Singers (Part IV – Blending and Phrasing)

ChoirSinger.com – Blending the choir – part 1

Republished with permission

One of the best Basses I've ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

One of the best Basses I’ve ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

Many people who listen to our choir comment on how each section sounds like one voice. This is not by accident, or good luck, but is a tribute to the work our director puts in on fine-tuning the choir.

It takes a well-trained ear to match voices so they reinforce the sound he is after, and it is not something I could possibly hope to teach in a text article online. I can, however, offer some tips that will make your director’s job easier.

First and foremost is intonation. If you can’t sing in tune you will never achieve the blend that’s necessary for a top-notch choral sound. There are some excellent ear-training resources available. Check out your local college bookstore for the kinds of material being used by the school to train music students. But the most important part of intonation is active listening.

Active listening involves learning to hear your own voice when you sing, and recognizing the difference between what you hear in your head and what others hear. A tape-recorder is an excellent tool for discovering what your voice sounds like to others.

Once you can pick your own voice out, listen to the sound of your section. Are you producing notes that match exactly the pitch of your section? You should not hear any ‘beats’ or waves of sound. Those indicate a difference in the pitch.

Another, often neglected, component of singing in tune and blending the sound is vowel alignment. By that I mean singing exactly the same vowel sound that everyone else in the choir is singing when you sing the same text. It is easy to hear the effect of different vowel sounds if you sing vastly different vowels, for example some people singing an EEEE sound while others sing an OOOO on the same pitch. That’s because the shape of the vowel alters the overtones of the pitch, and affect the intonation. What is not so obvious is that the SAME problem with intonation exists when you have two different versions of AH going on at the same time.

This is just the beginning of the problems a choir faces with blending. Next article I’ll discuss some of the common solutions, and which ones are better than others.

ChoirSinger.com – Blending the choir – part 2

Achieving a good choral sound can be a challenge, particularly in an amateur choir. Many of the voices are underdeveloped, or the singers have had little formal training since leaving school, and it can be somewhat like herding cats to get the choir to sound like an ensemble.

Many choir directors try to accomplish this by asking the singers to use a more breathy tone. This foggy sound seems like it would blend more easily, partly because nobody can actually hear what the sound is. Of course, that approach is wrong for a number of reasons, including possible damage to the voices of the singers.

A better approach, though perhaps more difficult, is to concentrate on producing a mature vocal sound. A sound that is focused and full of resonance. This requires more effort on the part of the singers, but the rewards are well worth it.

Once the singers start using their whole voices you begin to hear the rich overtones that comprise a good choral sound. When you combine the mature sound with the proper vowel alignment as discussed in the previous article you can accomplish wonderful things with a choir, and the sound will cut through even a large orchestra such as you would find with a work like Carmina Burana or Verdi’s Requiem.

The remarkable thing to many people is that the mature choral sound can be quite successful doing contemplative a capella works like those of Palestrina, too. Of course, some works call for a less turbulent sound (less vibrato), but that does not mean less intensity. A choir should sound the same at pianissimo as it does at fortissimo, only softer. Think of it like this: when you hear a work coming from the next room, then walk into the room and realize it is much louder than you thought. Same group, same music, different volume level.

This is important. It is more difficult to sing quietly because you have to work harder to maintain the support, yet without the support the pitch will not hold.

Here is another idea. Some voices should not be placed together. Either because they reinforce each other too much, or because they cancel each other out. A good choir director can hear this, and will often take steps to separate such voices. By the same token there are some voices that should be placed together. These voices compliment each other and form a more complete sound together than separately. Remember, if your choir director moves you around and pairs you up with someone else this is usually the reason (unless of course you are a talker and disrupt the rehearsals – but a good director would just encourage you to drop out in that case…).

ChoirSinger.com – Make it Mean Something

Have you ever gone to a choir concert that seemed uninspired and lifeless? Chances are you have, even if the sound was well blended and perfectly on pitch. Today we’re going to take a look at another part of the whole puzzle – the text.

As a singer the music you perform is more than just notes, tempos and dynamics. You have the added dimension of text to deal with. This adds a whole new set of concerns for phrasing the music, because you have to deal with more than just the melodic line. Text has meaning, and unless that meaning comes through you might as well sing the whole thing on LA.

Putting the meaning in the music is naturally easier if the music is in your language. For most of us reading this article that language is English. We are able to give the words their proper emphasis, and shape the phrases, because we understand what we are singing. If you sing in a small church choir that may be all you need to remember from week to week. You sing mostly hymn arrangements or other songs that speak to the text of the sermon, and you usually sing it with an understanding of what is being said. But what about foreign languages?

If you sing in a symphonic choir, or a non-church community chorus, you have probably sung songs in Latin and German. Possibly French or Spanish, and if you have an adventurous director, maybe even Russian. Carmina Burana is a very popular piece which uses Latin and an obscure language known as Frankish in some of its movements. So how do you convey the same level of meaning to your listeners that you do when you’re singing in your native tongue?

It would be great if we could all learn to speak five or six languages. That isn’t likely to happen, though, so we have to look for some clues in the music itself.

Much of the music you will do in other languages was written to be sung in those languages, and the composers did a lot of the work for you. The pulse of the music is a good clue about where most of the syllabic stress belongs (though not always). You should also look for hints in the way the text is broken up in your music. Most music publishers put dashes between the syllables of a word that is broken up by several notes, and they leave space between words. The punctuation can give you a sense of the phrasing – periods at the end of sentences, etc.

Some publishers now even help by marking the stressed syllables in the text, either by underlining the stressed syllables, by MAKing the stressed SYLLable all caps, or by other obvious markings.

Careful attention to such details can make a huge difference in the music. Choirs who successfully master this aspect of choral singing tend to stand out from the crowd, and their audiences will keep coming back for more.

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