Thursday, November 18, 2010

Singing in a Group

Luke gives some tips on working as a musical group

In improvised shows, a lot of our singing is with other people. Duets, trios and choruses abound, where we join forth in a unified sound of genius... or something to that effect. But, unless you are doing regular music jams together, sometimes it can be hard to get into the swing of things. So today we will be looking at a few tips at getting into your groove a bit quicker.

A Strong Opening

In improvised group songs, normally someone will lead out with a chorus or verse. If you are the one leading off the song it is important you establish a clear structure for everyone else to follow. It is a lot of responsibility, but you will need to set up the initial tone, melody and structure of the song. Once people can clearly see it’s an AA BB rhyming structure with a rousing double time feel it will give them the hook to reinforce it (with, say, a chorus or tilt such as a sad character coming in with a half time feel).

It is important with the opening stanza to platform; a song, like a scene, is only as strong as the foundation it is built on.

A Chorus Line

When it comes to singing in the group setting, you will almost invariably come to a chorus. If the opening has established the chorus we should all be on the same page as to the melody and the lyrics of the song. So if we aren’t thinking about what to sing we need to think about how to sing it.

The trick with good choral singing is not to have a multitude of people singing the same thing at the same time really well, but to have a group of people singing well together. It may seem to be a case of splitting hairs but it is a subtle and important distinction. Generally you should not be able to pick out a specific voice in any choral piece.

So, with that in mind, there are a few things you can do to help out with the blend. If you have a louder, more powerful voice, you could be mindful of holding back a little bit so your voice doesn’t stand out as much. Also if you know your voice is a bit brassy you can aim to soften it out a bit for the choral pieces. Naturally warmer voices will generally find it easier to find this blend as their resonances and harmonics generally will fit into a wider range of vocal tones.

An important part of finding this group cohesion is to ensure you do your vocal warm-ups together, and make sure you get your bodies nice and loose. If you are fully warmed up and the voice is relaxed you will find that your voices will blend more naturally.

Big Finish

Its always nice to have a big tag on a group song but it is very easy for a great song to be ruined by a lacklustre or incoherent close. It is usually best to let one person take the lead and for everyone to yield to their idea for the close. It is important that the person taking the lead clearly signifies this either physically or vocally. This can be achieved simply by stepping forward or by coming in louder on a chorus. A big dynamic close can be a great way to cap off a brilliant song or to bring the audience back after an uninspired offering.

In conclusion

While some of these simple tips might get the ball rolling, the best way to working on group singing is, unsurprisingly, to sing in a group. If you can get together with your fellow improvisers and musicians to work through some ideas and sing together, you will notice an improvement in your group songs.


Photo by Joe Moore

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Interview with Robbie Ellis


Robbie has shorter hair now. Really.
Friend of Musical Hotspot, Robbie Ellis, was interviewed recently by Renée Liang for New Zealand website The Big Idea. Robbie has a pretty varied musical background, studying, writing and performing music, as well as working on radio as a presenter and producer. He's also one of New Zealand's most experienced improv musicians.

Read the article "Cultural Storytellers: Robbie Ellis."

The interview gives a fascinating insight in to his thought patterns when underscoring a long improv story, especially the way he anticipates impending changes in the story, to allow for it in the music. (I can see only what is just barely around the corner; it sounds like Robbie can see down the street and clear in to the next suburb.)

The article was timed to help promote an improv show by NZ's ConArtists, a long-form musical called Austen Found - The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen. Their season finished at the end of October, to rave reviews! I'm always ecstatic to see an improv show getting reviews in major or even minor press, and this show scored big, with positive reviews in The New Zealand Herald and NZ's National Business Review.

Congratulations on a great season, Robbie!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Three-Way Chorus Circle

Back when we were discussing counterpoint, it sure sounded like a difficult sort of technique to learn. There's an exercise that makes it all much easier. If you're teaching a workshop, or working with your group on new techniques, it's worth giving this a try.

This exercise is based on another one we've covered earlier, Chorus Circle. Chorus Circle tries to teach participants the value of a simple, repetitive chorus, while reinforcing that non-driving team members can contribute and support very effectively by shadowing the singer.

In this exercise, which we will call, um, Three-Way Chorus Circle, we divide the class/group up in to three chunks, kind of like you'd do for Emotional Symphony. Just like Chorus Circle, you pick a title or inspiration for the song, and get cracking on a vamp that will support a chorus. Instruct just one of those groups to cook up a simple, mid-speed chorus that fits your music and the inspiration for the song. One intrepid volunteer from that group sings the chorus once through, then everyone else in that group sings it through once or twice.

Now that the first group has committed it to memory, keep the same vamp going and do the same exercise with a second group. The second group should construct a more wordy, faster paced chorus.

Then do the same with the third group, but create a less wordy chorus with nice sustained, soaring notes.

Finally - get group one to sing their part, layer group two on top, then add group three. They'll all sing compatible parts at different speeds, and they'll overlay quite nicely. If you can, conduct them! Raise and lower the volume of groups.

When we tried this at a recent workshop, I found that once all three groups were running, I could happily change the chord progressions in the accompaniment, and it all still held together very well.

Last, find a way to signal an end, and bring it to a close.

Hopefully you'll discover how easy this is! Even better if you can put it in to practice and pull it off during a show. If you find you're on stage with people that have done this exercise, you'll all get it, and hopefully find yourself doing some fantastic counterpoint.

Photo by Rusty Sheriff. Written by .

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Can Never Go Home

Most songs (impro or otherwise) tend to revolve around a root chord, their home chord. A song in the key of C might start with a C major chord, meander around to other places, but keep checking in back to C major. But not always. You can create a certain tension in a song by avoiding that home chord.

I've become addicted to Katy Perry's song Teenage Dream lately. (Hear that? It's the sound of any musical credibility I had, smashing to the ground. Stick with me, ok?) On the first listen I found something about it fascinated me, but I wasn't sure what. The lyrics are all about a new beginning with a partner, and all the fantasy and excitement of a potential shared life. The music is in Bb, and features the usual assortment of 4ths, 5ths and minor 6ths. But it never, not once, hits that root chord.

To me, avoiding that root chord introduces a lot of tension. That tension builds and never releases. I find this is completely consistent with lyrics that dream about a wonderful future. The progression in the song sings of happy potential, without ever touching down in reality.

This reminded me of a song we did in Worst Side Story. Extraordinary Day was one of the great lovers' duets from that show. In the preceding scene, the couple is dreaming about their white-picket-fence life they'll have together. That song had a pretty similar device where the music completely avoided the root chord. Hopefully it set up the right sort of feeling of anticipation. It did eventually come back to that root, right as the song finished.

I'm fascinated by how specific chord progressions or tricks can inspire specific feelings and emotions. I relentlessly hammer a hero-chord-progression for a recurring character in one show, and now it is his theme. There is a dissonant chord called the Devil's Chord that invokes fear and oppression, and I've discovered it in a theme for another recurring character, arguably the darkest character in that show.

I suspect there's a whole school of musical theory around stuff like this, and I'm only just glimpsing it. My formally trained musician friends are at this point laughing at my childlike intellect. (Or they're still laughing at the Katy Perry song. Not sure which.)

Photo by Cornelia Kopp. Written by .
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