Singing in a group or ensemble like a choir is probably the best way to train your ear to sing harmonies and to blend with other voices as well as learning to work with people.
I personally think that group singing and choir work are much harder than soloing – because it requires tremendous team-effort.
So how can you best prepare yourself to be part of a choral group or ensemble?
1. Warm-up Beforehand
The primary purpose of the rehearsal is to learn new repertoire, not for vocal maintenance. You can save a lot of time and unnecessary vocal strain by coming to rehearsal already warmed-up.
By completing some simple stretches and vocal scales you can significantly alter the timbre and tone of your voice which is so important when you are trying to blend with 50 other voices.
2. Be Punctual
This ones pretty self explanatory – but when your working with a group of people it takes co-operation and respect to achieve something great. Being on time is really just common courtesy to your leader and the other members of the group. There’s nothing worse than having to cover old ground for stragglers who miss the start of rehearsal.
3. Keep Hydrated
A bottle of water is a singers best friend – you need to keep your vocal cords well hydrated, this will help you sing for longer and reduce vocal fatigue. Especially during long rehearsals you should be sipping water throughout. It’s worth noting that to be fully hydrated you need to have taken some water 24 hours before rehearsal so don’t just bring water with you. To keep yourself vocally fit you should drink plenty of water everyday.
4. Record the Sessions
With smart phones these days it’s so easy to record rehearsals and review the session at a latter time. In my choirs I record the rehearsal and play it back in the car when I’m driving. That way I can remember all the annotations and tweaks for the repertoire we are learning. You’ll look super prepared for your next session in you review each rehearsal in your own time. It’s a great way to learn parts and lyrics as well.
5. Annotate your Score
Whether you use lyric sheets or musical scores it’s a great idea to have a lead pencil to mark music to remind you of the directors instructions and have little cues in the music about tone, dynamics, syncopation and diction. It’s not surprising how much we forget once we’ve finished a rehearsal. Have a notebook handy to write down important notes about each piece if you can’t write directly on your copy.
6. Blend, Blend, Blend
The key to blending effectively is listening and be willing to adapt your voice accordingly. For example if everyone is using a lot of breath in one section and singing softly – don’t belt out the tune to be heard. When singing harmonies I like to think of a pyramid with soprano’s at the top followed by altos, tenors and basses at the bottom. Often the sopranos will need to pull back a bit, by nature of their vocal presence, in order to get a good blend of parts. The overall volume should be dictated by the quietest section. One choirs forte may sound very different to another.
7. Singing Harmonies
It's often a good idea to learn the melody first, once your confident with the tune you can break off into harmonies much more easily. If your working from lyric sheets you can draw lines which indicate which notes are higher or lower. Some will find that harmonies come quite naturally for others a little more work is required. If you fall into the latter group you may want to put in some work before hand to learn your parts so as not to put everyone else off. One of the best way to harmonise is with simple rounds. Try singing 'Row Row Row Your Boat' with the group and each section come in one or two beats after the preceding part. With this one you can break it into about 12 parts or so, with everyone singing the same tune but in a delayed fashion.
8. Listen to Music
A great tip is to listen for other parts in music other than the lead vocal or primary instrument – always be listening for what else you can hear. Are there backing vocals, can you hear a counter melody. It takes a bit of concentration to listen for things that you would not normally take in with casual listening. With a bit of active listening you will learn about song structure and arrangement in no time.
9. Chord Structure
Having a little theoretical knowledge about chord structure will go a long way to improving your skills in musicianship. Piano or theory lessons will accelerate your skill for harmonies and you will become a more confident vocalist.
10. Don’t be a Distraction
In a group setting its important to listen more than you speak, with everyone talking – especially in a room with a lot of reverb – its very difficult to be productive. With too much chatter, you will miss instructions and the whole experience becomes frustrating. A professional attitude goes a long way and you’ll find that your group moves ahead in leaps and bounds.
Melbourne Contemporary Choir
Jason or (Jase) as he likes to be called is Founder & Creative Director of Melbourne Contemporary Choir (MCCHOIR) and is a passionate musician who wants to bring his love for music to a broader audience.
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