This is a mirror post of
Directly involved Issue 4/11/2011
"Building Our instrument" article by
Steve Tramack - Chair, BHS Chorus Director Development Committee
Here’s a quick checklist for building a better instrument, from the ground up.
Want to prove to your singers and yourself that a) alignment and tension release are important, and b) this is a skill set that everyone can improve in your chorus? Ask your section leaders, or your best chapter quartet, if they can assist with this demonstration at your next rehearsal. Let them know that you’d like to have them sing something for the chorus, and then would like to work with them to help improve their performance, but keep the specifics vague (as to not predispose them to the approach). With your chorus sitting on the risers or in chairs, have the quartet / section leaders come up front and sing a song of their choosing. Ask your chorus to keep that performance in mind as the baseline, and ask the quartet if you can assist them in building an even better instrument. Would they be interested in producing more sound, more consistently, with less effort?
Start at the feet. Ask the quartet to ensure their feet are shoulder-width apart (not the outside of the arms – the shoulders). Ask them to “find their skeleton” – that centered spot where their skeleton is supporting the majority of their weight. If they shift their weight forward and back, left and right, they’ll find a spot where they’re “centered”, with their skeletal structure supporting their weight more so than muscles. Have them sing 16 measures (intro, verse or first 2 A sections of the chorus of the song), and ask your chorus members to vote on whether there was any improvement by simply “finding their skeleton”. To vote, thumbs up = better, thumbs sideways = the same, and thumbs down = worse.
Pelvic girdle. Have them slightly tilt their hips / pelvic girdle forward, just so the knees unlock and the hip joint is now aligned, as you look at the singer from the side, with the middle of the foot. By playing with the degree of tilt, they’ll find that the air falls more easily and lower into the body when the pelvic girdle is properly aligned. Have them (and your singers) play with this – if they go too far, the air seems to get “stuck” high in the chest. If they don’t go far enough, the knees lock and the air also gets stuck. Have the quartet find the ideal tilt (where the air falls low into the body), and have them sing the same 16 bars. Have the chorus vote.
Lengthen and broaden the back. Next, how much length can the singers create between the hips and the base of the skull (the A/O joint)? The back should feel like it lengthens and broadens, but the arms and shoulders must release down and hang naturally. You’ll notice a higher rib cage naturally occurs as the back lengthens and broadens. Maintain the skeletal support – the shoulders should be aligned with the hips and the feet. Have them sing the 16 measures again, and ask the chorus to vote.
Back of the neck. Next, ask the quartet singers to lengthen the back of the neck, while finding that centered spot (not too far forward / back / left / right) for the head; feeling like it’s floating on the top of the spine. It should feel like the head could easily release directly up, were it not attached, and can move freely. The chin is going to be level with the floor, or maybe even 2 degrees below the horizon. Have them sing the 16 measures again, and ask the chorus to vote.
Release any undue tension. The Four Musketeers of Vocal Tension are the neck, shoulders, jaw and tongue. Any tension here will have a direct impact on vocal freedom. Have the singers release tension through moving each of those areas (various exercises are available in warm-up materials from the Society), and sing those same 16 measures again.
Deconstruct and reconstruct. You’ve now built a better, aligned, optimal instrument together with the quartet. As the quartet if they were aware of things that they changed as part of the process. As a final step, ask for them relax, and then, in one motion, rebuild that instrument. That’s what a singer should look like and, for them, feel like. Have them start the 16 measures again, in the “relaxed” position, and then, at the ninth measure, have them rebuild the instrument. You’ll be amazed at the difference!
Now that the chorus has heard and seen the different, go through the full process with the full chorus.
This is most effective if you, as a director, can model this optimal, aligned instrument, and find opportunities to reset this alignment at key points throughout your rehearsal and your music. You should practice this in front of a mirror, so that you can quickly build / demonstrate the aligned instrument quickly and consistently for your singers. The more habitual this becomes for your singers, the better the singing will be, with less effort…which will increase their level of enjoyment. A win-win!