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Choral Singing and the Big V Question

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vibratoPut twenty choral practitioners in a room and ask them about vibrato and choral singing, and you will hear twenty different opinions. And if choral singers’ voices were as inflexible as these opinions can be, nobody would ever achieve a blended section. So I approach this question from a section leader in a barbershop chorus with some trepidation:

I have a Lead who has some vibrato in her voice. Do I put her in the middle of the section or is there some way I can help her to reduce this?

So let’s start with the obvious: the problem isn’t the vibrato per se, the problem is an individual voice not blending with the section, and vibrato is the element of the sound that has been diagnosed as causing the sticky-outness. If everyone in the chorus had that degree of vibrato, you wouldn’t have a sticky-out voice – though you would have a very different sound, and, granted, one that might not be best suited to the aesthetic fetishes of barbershop like lock and ring. But it’s worth opening out that context to de-personalise the issue – it’s not necessarily a single ‘problem’ voice, but an issue about how contrasting vocal habits interact with one another in a particular style.

Still, the style in question is one that values a sound that is sparing with vibrato and has well-blended sections, so the issue still needs dealing with.

There are two ways you can approach this: vocal and musical. The vocal approach is the most common, but I tend to prefer either the musical or a double-pronged approach, just because I’m counter-cultural like that. (Also, I’m much happier messing with people’s heads than with the way they use their bodies, having experienced some unfortunate/counter-productive vocal-technique make-overs in my youth.)

The vocal approach looks at changing singing technique. Frankly, unless you have some reasonably well-trained/qualified background as a voice teacher, you don’t want to start trying to muck with that individual’s voice (and if you are, of course, you don’t need my advice on how to do it.) But you can usefully approach vocal production with the whole section, on the principle that people who are using their voices in a similar way are likely to sound more alike. So approaches to choral sound like the ‘warm breath’ idea in the previous post can help reduce the difference in sound within the section.

The musical approach is to train people’s ears and trust that where their ears lead, their voices will follow. Here you can spend some time at an individual level, getting your singer to listen to different recordings of singers, including both herself and the people you’d like her to emulate, and learning to hear the difference. Don’t tell her what the differences are – help her figure it out for herself. She’s the one who needs to learn how to hear the difference. You also need to spend time with the section, helping them listen for blend. Here are two useful exercises for this:

  • ’One Voice’. Start with one person singing the part, with everyone else listening. When each singer feels they have listened long enough to hear the sound they’ll be matching, they join in, with the intention to sound like ‘one voice’ with the person/people already singing. Take it in turn to start, so everyone has to practise listening to and matching each other.
  • Virtual Ear. We normally listen with the ears either side of our heads. For this exercise, you need to imagine a single, shared ear, outside of the group. Sing a single, sustained note in unison on a common vowel (e.g. ma – the ‘m’ is there to help bring the sound forward at the start), and listen to the unison from this vantage point. You are listening for that moment when the voices gel and an overtone appears. It takes a bit of an imaginative leap at first, but as soon as the singers hear what they’re after once, they can find it again much more easily thereafter. It’s easier to demonstrate this than to write it about of course…

Both the vocal and musical approaches are medium to long-term projects, but they are ones that will benefit the whole section. And it’s quite important to approach this with the whole section in mind, rather than making the singer with vibrato feel too much like a ‘problem’. If you’re giving her individual help, are you helping others individually too? If you’re considering the sound of her voice in stacking decisions, are you also thinking about other people’s voices? If the person with a sticky-out voice feels isolated, getting them to blend is a much harder job. But if there’s a sense that everybody is working on individual development to support the common cause, then success will eventually be yours.

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