Week 5: hearing ways to improve the sound, learning about reducing tension
This blog series is part of a course I’ve built to learn more about choir conducting (“Directed Study in Music”, under the supervision of Mark Vuorinen at the University of Waterloo). I am learning and thinking about many cool things and want to share some of them with you!
What I did this week
- several exercises to practice hearing errors and points for improvement when listening to a group of singers (it’s a very useful skill for rehearsal, but I’ve had trouble finding ways to practice until this week)
- continued ear training practice with Perfect Ear and Jacob
- practiced gesture for Maurice Duruflé’s — Requiem, and met with Mark who gave me a bunch more great insight into conducting it
- read another chapter of Vocal Technique: A Guide for Conductors, Teachers, and Singers (chapter 14: Reducing Tension)
Hearing ways to improve the sound
There are a lot of important skills for conducting and rehearsing music. One skill that has felt important that I’ve struggled to work on is hearing a group sing, and then quickly coming up with something to work on with them that will improve their sound. Maybe they sang a wrong note or word, but maybe it’s more subtle — maybe they’re a little flat, or the tone is a little too dark, or the diction isn’t quite clear enough or not together. I practiced listening for these things in three ways this week:
- Listening to recordings of choirs. I listened to two recordings of I Thank You God, which I just finished studying in this course, and wrote up some rough notes on what I would want to improve. I noticed that I talked a lot about diction and dynamic/tempo contrast, which were things I especially focused on while preparing this piece (which makes sense).
- Critiqued a group’s live performance. My friend Yang has an a cappella group called In Full Colour. They have a competition coming up and invited a live audience to listen and critique them. I feel like Yang probably thought to invite me because of these blog posts I’ve been writing, and I’m so grateful people have been thinking of opportunities for me to learn!
- Used an exercise book written just for practicing this skill. Choral Error Detection: Exercises for Developing Musicianship by Paul Hondorp is the only book I’ve found of this sort, but it’s really great and exactly what I’ve been looking for! Mark assigned me three three short and simple pieces to study from the book, and on Monday we listened to provided recordings of them. The recordings had purposeful mistakes, and the exercise was to find them. There were wrong notes and rhythms (mistakes that real singers would reasonably make), diction issues, tempo issues, and issues with the tone or “feel” of the piece. This week’s exercises were fun, the exercises only get harder, and I’ve only done 3 of over 50, so I’m pretty excited!
Side note: I had trouble noticing the tempo issue. I don’t have a very strong intuition for what some number of beats per minute sounds like. I think that would be useful to work on.
Jacob’s new ear training exercise
Jacob came up with another new exercise this week. One of us sits at the piano and plays two notes (at the same time), the other sings them back. Then they add a third note, and the other sings all three. A fourth note is added to the chord in the same way.
Then, the person at the piano changes one of the four notes, plays the new chord, and the other sings back all four notes with the change. This process repeats a few times, and then we switch.
I liked it because we were able to practice with more notes to keep track of (four part harmony is common in choirs). It’s also helpful to hear how the sound of a chord changes when one note changes.
Mark’s notes on conducting the Requiem
- A lot of the Requiem is based on chant — it’s probably helpful to know which musical lines are chant and which are not — how do I find out I’d have to research this, or read other folk’s research
- There are scores with full orchestra, but mine has the organ reduction. It’s helpful to note that the reduction was written by the composer. Sometimes scores are adaptations of the composer’s original work, with extra things added in (that aren’t always the best). But here, especially since Duruflé was a well known organist, we can be sure the organ part well expresses his intention for the piece.
- Sometimes choristers get scores with the accompaniment written in below their parts, sometimes it’s not there (common in French music like this) and you have to pass on knowledge about notes in the accompaniment that are helpful.
- Asking “what is the role of the accompaniment?” in different sections. Is there melody in there? Does it add rhythmic or harmonic complexity? Does it support the choir? In what ways? (I noted the start of the first movement has accompaniment/choir texture similar to the start of I Thank You God)
- Asking “what challenges might singers face?” and thinking about ways to combat that before rehearsal even starts. For the Introit movement a lot of the challenges are around unified tone and vowel and pitch.
- He pointed out that there was a section where the strong musical beats were not the same as the stressed syllables of the words, and so keeping gesture more smooth can help encourage singers to emphasize the correct stressed syllables.
- Mark suggested to practice singing parts as I want them to sound, then conducting myself as you sing. He says the gesture I’m looking for to make that sound may come more naturally this way.
- I learned that the climax of the Kyrie between rehearsal numbers  and  is one of Mark’s favourite musical moments of all time, so that’s pretty exciting.
Highlights from reading Vocal Technique: A Guide for Conductors, Teachers, and Singers
Muscle tension is necessary to accomplish many tasks of singing (standing up, opening the mouth in a certain shape, vibrating vocal folds) but a lot of tension is unnecessary and actually harmful.
In most of my singing over the years, I’ve had issues with tension that has sometimes made it a lot more uncomfortable to sing. I’ve learned a lot of great tools to reduce tension, and will probably read another related chapter to this next week.
This week I read about reducing tension in Vocal Technique, and here are some highlights:
Chapter 14: Reducing tension
- The tongue is a major problem for most singers because it is such a large muscle. Even slight movement of the tongue in unhealthy ways can unfavourably affect the anatomy involved in singing, and have a substantial effect on tonal quality (including tuning issues).
- One singer who had issues with her tongue falling back (especially affecting her high notes) talked about how her teacher placed a honey drop on the center indentation near the tip of her tongue and the tongue reflexively moved to the correct position (I love this!!)
- Leg tension is also a common issue. When legs are locked or tense for too long, blood flow to the heart and brain is reduced, and this is a major cause of fainting of choristers standing on risers. (I’ve witnessed many fainting choristers over my years in choir, they told us wiggling our toes would help prevent fainting)
- Tension often compensates for something that is missing in vocal technique, trying to support our sound in unhealthy ways. Often if you focus on making sound in a healthy way and feeling the support in a healthy way, the tension will naturally go away. This means it’s really important for conductors to teach healthy vocal production!
That’s all for this week! I’ll be posting these weekly, so keep an eye out for the next one.
If you have questions about anything I talked about or want to chat with me about conducting stuffs, I love to talk about it so feel free to reach out!