Health Check No. 1

Looking after the voice

The warm up
Choir Doctor at work
Meet the choir

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What a lovely choir! It was great to meet and hear such a game group of singers. They were so responsive and up for hard work – a real pleasure to work with. Reflecting on the session, here are a few things that I think would really help them to continue to build on the solid foundations they already have.

When warming up make sure that – as well as warming up your voices – you stimulate your emotional engagement to what you are doing. When you engage your emotions you get a lot benefits for your singing; if you take a breath full of happy surprise, your body is far more ready and prepared to sing than if you take a ‘special singing’ breath. Ditto with a breath full of sob, as if you are about to cry – your soft palate is ready, your voice is better placed, and your resonators are prepared and open. There is a lot less to think about technically if you are being truthful with your emotions, and this will also enable you to make bold performance decisions with your material later on.

Storytelling – know what you are singing about. Have a look at the text of your material in isolation from the tune. Make some of the decisions about where to breathe based on the grammar of the text rather than just the musical phrasing. This is not to say that you shouldn’t also practice just thinking about the notes and learning those, but be careful that you actively make decisions about how you are going to sing something rather than just establish habits when you are note-bashing. For example, the gaps within the sentences of Little Bird need thought to make them make sense.

Who has the tune? Make sure that it is super clear where the tune is at every moment. Backing vocals should be supportive, not overwhelming. A good way to practice this is to sing through your piece as a group, and whichever part has the tune or most important part of the texture should stand up, and whenever they are not the main musical focus they should sit down. This will help everyone to pull together and will ensure that you are making strong decisions about which part of the texture to bring out at every moment.

Get out of bland land! Don’t let your brain slip into neutral as it makes your singing sound much less engaging. Remember that ANY decision you make is better than no decision. Once you know a piece well, try singing passages with different emotional impetuses, for example as a lullaby for a restless child / with furious but quiet rage / in a charming voice / as if holding back tears etc. Practicing in this way will free you up to make bold decisions. Try assigning different adjectives to each phrase of music – make the adjectives as contrasting as possible and see what it does to your performance.

Take as much care with the ends of phrases as with their beginnings. English as a spoken language is fairly lazy and lots of us drop the ends of words or sentences – this is fine when you are speaking, but not when you are singing. When you are singing, practice really making sure that you aren’t starving the ends of words of air. I seem to remember you owed me quite a few ‘k’s in our session… don’t let that debt build!

Practice in ‘performance mode’ as well as practice mode. Make sure that once you know your material well, you take everything up a gear – audiences go to concerts to be moved, not to hear the right notes in the right order. Make sure that you spend some time practicing ‘performance’ otherwise you are simply sharing your practice, which is far less engaging for anyone listening to you.

Find out more about Choir Doctor Suzi Zumpe.
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